After drawing flak over the alleged misuse of the Bihar’s stringent liquor ban policy, Nitish Kumar’s government on July 11 acceded to the proposed amendments in the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016.
The proposed amendments, expected to be tabled during the monsoon session beginning July 20, will dilute the existing provisions, including the arrest of first-time offenders, seizure of house or vehicle where liquor is found, and arrest of all adult members of an offender’s family.
Once the amendments are brought in, the first time violation will be a bailable and non-cognisable offence, the second-time or subsequent offenders will be liable to two to five years of imprisonment, and the much-criticised provision to “arrest of all adults in offender’s family” is expected to be abolished. Imposition of a ₹50,000 fine on first-time offenders has also been proposed.
While the liquor ban saw mixed results in the state, locals and researchers have claimed that the ban has largely been counterproductive and it needs more than piecemeal amendments. They believe that it was a politically motivated move and has eventually turned into an anti-people policy.
“Such reforms need proper social engineering. All the stakeholders like Panchayats, consumers, manufacturers, carriers, schools, among many others, have to be made part of such a social movement. You can’t just throw people inside jails for consuming alcohol. It’s a social issue and has to be dealt with holistically. Behavioural changes can never be brought by such draconian moves. This anti-people law needs more than amendments,” argued D. M. Diwakar, social scientist and professor of economics at Patna-based A. N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar introduced the stringent prohibition law in April 2016 to please his strong women voters who had expressed their concerns over rampant domestic violence by their husbands under the influence of alcohol. The prohibition law, which has cost the state exchequer about ₹5,000 crore annually, has been widely criticised for punishing the carriers and ‘poor’ consumers of the liquor while manufacturers, distributors, and influential people have been spared.
“The law was introduced to bring positive social change. It did have some positive outcomes but the government has exaggerated its outcomes. In reality, people from poor and backward classes have suffered the most. Jails are flooded with casual labourers, rickshaw-pullers, etc. But, MLAs, big businessmen, and liquor mafia have been largely untouched by the law,” pointed out Diwakar.
According to official police data, over 1.4 lakh people have been booked under the liquor law ever since it was implemented in April 2016. Over 90% of those arrested under the law belong to SC, OBC and EBC community. Unable to pay the fine or ‘strike a deal with police officials’, many of them are facing the brunt of the government’s crackdown.
“In close to 90% of the appeals that are filed daily in the court in connection with liquor cases the petitioners are from a very poor background. They don’t have the money to send their kids to schools, how can they pay a fine of ₹50,000. Some manage to get the amount but around 70% don’t,” revealed Murari Kumar Himanshu, Gaya-based lawyer and member of Bihar State Bar Council.
Under the present Act, anyone found brewing, keeping, selling or exporting liquor can be sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence, in addition to a ₹1 lakh fine. Furthermore, anyone found drinking is liable to a five to seven-year sentence plus a fine that could range from ₹1- 7 lakh.
Despite such stringent crackdowns, there’s still very high demand, availability and supply of liquor in the state. While liquor cannot be manufactured and sold in the state legally, there’s a steady supply of alcohol through illegal routes. The official government data reveals that 5 lakh litres of foreign-made liquor was recovered from April 5, 2016, till March 31, 2017. This figure shot up to 6 lakh from April 2017, to end of October 2017.
According to locals, a pouch of country-made liquor that used to cost ₹10-15 now is easily sold for ₹60-100. A bottle of popular IMFL brand liquor that earlier would cost around ₹500-700 is being sold for ₹1,200-1,400.
Lawyers and social researchers claim that ever since the prohibition law came into force the state has become a hotbed for liquor mafia. Many top police officials are hand-in-gloves with manufacturers and distributors from bordering states of Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Speaking to Youth Ki Awaaz, sources claimed that police officers are raking huge cash through cut-commision basis for allowing smuggling of the alcohol in the state.
“Liquor mafia has become as strong as sand mafia in the state. It’s the new income source for the police officials. They straight away ask for their commission failing to which they put the person behind bars. They take hefty bribes and keep a certain portion of the consignment, which is either consumed by them or supplied directly to influential people in the state,” Murari noted.
Reiterating Murari’s observation, a Patna-based lawyer, who didn’t want to be named, said, “There’s Manjhi police station in Chhapra district that shares borders with neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. Police officials are paying hefty bribes to be transferred there. Many police officials there have accumulated huge wealth ever since liquor ban policy kicked in.”