How Bihar is enforcing a prohibition through a draconian law
While GST Bill and Sonia Gandhi's ailing health continue to make headlines, the passing of the Bihar Excise and Prohibition Bill, 2016 by the Bihar Vidhan Sabha has largely gone unnoticed in the national media. The stringent bill seems to be rather draconian.
The new legislation on total prohibition was passed on Monday amidst the boycott by the Opposition in over three-hour-long debate on the Bill. The government refused the opposition demand for division of votes on two amendment proposals leading to the walkout of the opposition members. The new law will replace the existing Bihar Excise (Amendment), Act, 2015.
The state government does not have any data related to the effect of the prohibition.
Although, it announced that Bachpan Bachao Andolan would be entrusted with such a study, but only after the new Bill was passed. The new Bill entails several changes in the present excise policy that are undemocratic and infringe upon the fundamental rights of citizens. This has increased the probability of its misuse.
The controversial provisions
Some of the controversial provisions of the new bill include the arrest of all the adults of the family if liquor is found from its possession or there are allegations of liquor consumption. A family comprises husband, wife and children under the law.
Any person found to be providing a vehicle, utensils or any other help for boozing would also be liable for punishment under the new law. Not only that, the burden of proof for proving innocence would be upon the accused.
The owner of the company and/or its unit head would be held accountable, if any person is caught consuming alcohol within the premises of the liquor factory.
A person allowing anyone to take liquor in his house could be punished for eight years in jail (extendable up to 10 years) and/or a fine of Rs 10 lakh.
Any house or compound, where liquor is found, would be sealed and confiscated. Besides, a District Collector can send the entire village or a group of people to jail or impose a fine on them.
The state government argues that it is necessary to fix accountability for recovery of liquor from any household. But it has not answered how the entire family could be held responsible if a bottle of liquor is found from a home or any other compound. Can an entire family, group or community be punished in the name of this accountability?
Apprehensions of misuse
Are ordinary women empowered enough to stop their male relatives from bringing liquor into the house? What is the guarantee that the new law would not be misused in the cases of family feuds and neighbourhood rivalries? The new bill completely overlooks these questions.
We know how excise department officials in Buxar and Kaimur district used to plant liquor bottles in vehicles and extort money by threatening arrests. These charges were proved correct after investigation and several corrupt officials were sacked.
The new law enhances the quantum of punishment in such cases to three years from the existing three months, whereas the amount of the fine has been increased to Rs 1 lakh.
It would not be unfair to assume that corrupt government employees will now have a new weapon to extort money with impunity. The state might slip into 'police raj' in the name of total prohibition.
Obsession over complete prohibition
The Grand Alliance government was voted to power with a thumping majority. The liquor prohibition was one of the pre-poll promises made by the Chief Minister. This was the reason his move to fulfil this promise was not opposed in the state. But what is the need for such a draconian law?
BJP MLA Nand Kishor Yadav, Former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi, Rashtriya Lok Samta Party MLA Lallan Prasad and CPI (ML) MLA Mehboob Alam were among the prominent leaders who opposed the bill in the Assembly.
Several legislators expressed apprehensions that the provisions of the bill might be misused to frame entire families. But the government dismissed these objections stating that the new law would help achieve the objective of complete prohibition in the state.
There is nothing like 'complete prohibition', even in states that have banned liquor. One can easily buy alcohol in Gujarat, despite such prohibition. In view of the experts, 'complete prohibition' is nothing more than a political obsession. In any case, the manufacturing licenses of liquor factories have not been cancelled in Bihar.
The government says companies will demand compensation if their licenses are cancelled. Its strategy is to keep on renewing the licenses until they decide to leave Bihar on their own. But there is a big question mark whether liquor companies would make such a move after heavy investment in the state.
Crime control claims
The government was mindful of its vote bank when it decided to keep palm wine or Toddy, out of the purview of this Bill. The traditional drink would not be banned till a mechanism was put in place for processing 'Nira', an unfermented drink made out of toddy juice.
This would undoubtedly result in an increase in the consumption of Toddy. Cheap liquor is most popular in the rural areas of Bihar and most habitual would not mind switching to the palm wine. How will it be different from the prevailing situation then?
The Chief Minister believes prohibition is a step in the direction of women empowerment. He claims, the cases of domestic violence have gone down after liquor was banned. In reality, alcoholism is only one of the reasons for violence against women. Bihar remains one of the most dangerous places for women, despite these tall claims.
The data does not support the claim of a decrease in the crime rate after prohibition either. 14,279, 16,208 and 17,507 cases of crimes were reported in the months of April, May and June this year respectively. The number of rape cases reported has gone up from 61 in April to 95 in June.
This indicates liquor prohibition has no direct relation to the crimes against the women. The draconian provisions of the new law would only make them more vulnerable. True prohibition can only be implemented if the government bans the manufacture of alcohol altogether.
Translated by Deepak Sharma