Bihar’s draconian prohibition law

Nothing succeeds like excess. This may well be the belief of the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar, which has passed a stringent law to enforce its total prohibition policy. Prohibition on country-made liquor was imposed on April 1, and within days it was expanded to cover Indian-Made Foreign Liquor. However, the State has now come up with fresh legislation to supersede earlier Acts in a bid to ward off criticism that penal laws and administrative measures do not prevent alcohol consumption. Brushing aside criticism in the Assembly, the government has pushed through a Bill so stringent that the Opposition parties call it draconian. This cannot be dismissed as the usual criticism of political adversaries, as some of the provisions indeed are scarily excessive. The most egregious one allows action against all adult members of a family if liquor is found on their premises or one of them is suspected to have consumed it. The law presumes that all of them must be aware of the offence until proven otherwise, but essentially this amounts to collective punishment. Similarly, the owner of any premises in which liquor is stored or consumed is liable for prosecution. With the offences related to consumption, storage and possession of alcohol or any other intoxicant being cognisable, the sweeping provision could land anyone in jail because of the involvement of one family member, tenant or visitor. The authorities could seal or confiscate the property, and fine a group of people or a village, for repeated transgressions.

Of late there has been a populist competition between political parties in moving towards liquor bans in various parts of the country. The growing tendency among State governments to ban liquor in the apparent interest of protecting the public health may appear politically attractive, but it is fraught with practical consequences: fall in revenue, a rise in contraband movement, the formation of mafias and a spike in corruption. Mr. Kumar argues that the law is effective in its present form as it seeks to plug all loopholes. It also contains safeguards in the form of provisions to punish officials who misuse it. It may appear pointless trying to convince those who are politically committed to prohibition that the step is impractical, unfeasible or illiberal; it is up to them to draw their own lessons from experience. And from Mr. Kumar’s recent statements it is clear that the promise of prohibition may be his calling card as he tries to extend the political presence of the Janata Dal (United) beyond Bihar. However, the controversial new provisions are unlikely to survive judicial scrutiny. Bihar would do well to reconsider them.

Keywords: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, prohibition in Bihar, stringent laws in Bihar


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