Bihar’s new liquor law operates with old system

    Following the passage of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise (amendment) Act, 2022, on March 30 last, the general administration department of the Bihar government on April 1 issued the gazette notification of the Governor’s order, notifying the list of officials designated as special executive magistrate in districts and subdivisions to deal with liquor-related cases upon vesting of power of the 2nd class judicial magistrate by the Patna High Court.

    Three months on, HC approval is still awaited.

    According to officials familiar with development, HC has certain reservations in vesting judicial powers on officials designated as special executive magistrate in districts and subdivisions to reduce the load on courts.

    This has meant that despite the new Act, the old judicial process continues.

    As per official data, nearly 25% of the total pendency of cases in lower courts and 20% in the high court pertains to prohibition-related cases. In 2019, alarmed by the growing pendency, the high court had asked the state government to present a plan for how it intends to dispose of cases related to liquor.

    In July last year, the high court had directed that all proceedings related to confiscation of property under the prohibition law must be initiated and concluded within a period of 90 days from the date of appearance of the parties concerned.

    Faced with continued opposition both within and outside House after frequent hooch tragedies and harsh comments from the Supreme Court due to mounting legal cases, the Bihar government had decided to come up with an another round of amendments to scale down the penal provisions and introduce financial penalties, in a bid to ease the load on courts.

    Officials in the prohibition, excise and registration department said the delay in approval of designated executive magistrates’ list had no way impacted the drive against liquor in the state, as enforcement had only further tightened since April 1, with around 23,697 cases registered under the liquor law only in the designated excise courts by both the police and the excise department in the last three months (till June 25).

    Patna, which is under maximum surveillance, has witnessed the highest registration of cases (2312 ), followed by East Champaran (1,191), West Champaran (1,064), Madhubani (899), Gopalganj (896), Nalanda (886), Saran (855) and Bhojpur (603), while Sheikhpura (114) has the lowest number of cases registered.

    Smugglers continue to use road, rail and water to ferry alcohol despite the growing risk of being caught due greater vigil through boats, drones, helicopters and excise department’s own force to supplement police.

    Under the 2022 amended Act, there is a provision for the first-time offenders to be released by the order of the special magistrate after depositing fine. In case the offender is not able to deposit the fine, he/she will be liable to face one-month simple imprisonment. The Bill, however, does not give the accused right to be set free on payment of fine, as the executive magistrate could deny release on the basis of report by the police or excise officer. The same process applies for release of seized vehicles.

    Though the government had notified 395 officers for appointment as special executive magistrates across the state in one go soon after the new Act was notified, it got stuck in the court. “The court seems to have its reservations with it. After all, the discretion to release or not to release a person will create a situation of discrimination in the hands of the administration, which will again be prone to be challenged in the court of law,” said former additional solicitor general SD Sanjay.

    Joint commissioner (prohibition) Krishna Nandan Paswan, however, said the drive to enforce prohibition was going on in full swing. “The court has to decide when and whether to vest judicial powers in the designated executive magistrates. As far as the department is concerned, it is working with full alertness. There is no liquor visibility in the open, while those into smuggling are getting caught due to constantly growing alertness,” he said.

    The department statistics show that, as per the new Act, the total number of accused arrested and released from jail on fine between April 1 and June 25 was 963 and the average stay in jail of around nine days. Similarly, since April 1, the number of vehicles seized and later released as per the new law stood at 117 (till June 25). This has brought ₹74 lakh to the exchequer in penalty from vehicles seized and released since April 1. The government has also collected ₹54 lakh in penalty from owners of land or premises where liquor was found.

    Bihar government had imposed total prohibition in Bihar on April 5, 2016, less than six months after coming to power, with a unanimous House resolution. The CM had made a pre-poll announcement while addressing women of the self-help groups (SHGs) that he would impose prohibition in the state. However, later political parties started pointing fingers at it for various reasons, including the way of implementation, continued smuggling and the police role, though none could openly oppose it. The government also made some claims own by bringing about some changes, but stuck with prohibition.