Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Awash in Confusion

The state’s constant alteration of its liquor policy has resulted in chaos. After the fifth change in its liquor act, it is obvious the state government has no clear policy on curbing rampant alcoholism.

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In a puzzling turn of events, the Bihar government has been doing a flip-flop with its liquor law, making frequent changes and resulting in confusion and chaos. The latest modification announced by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has sparked controversy once again. This is fifth alteration since April 2022 and involves a significant reduction in fines imposed on vehicles carrying alcohol. However, it has led to unforeseen consequences, such as an overwhelming number of four-wheelers accumulating in police stations across the state. This has highlighted the government’s struggle to establish a consistent and effective approach to liquor regulation.

Residents in Bihar whose vehicles were confiscated for transporting alcohol can now have them released for a fee of 10% of the vehicle’s insurance coverage. This is far less than the 50% formerly demanded after due permission from a competent court.

Additional Chief Secretary, Finance Department, Government of Bihar, reportedly stated: “The authorities can now release vehicles transporting liquor after payment of either 10% of the insured value of the vehicle or Rs 5 lakh after consulting the judicial authorities…the modified section will be notified soon by the government after completing mandatory formalities.”

In February 2022, the Supreme Court indicated that trials courts in Bihar and the Patna High Court were being overburdened by bail applications under the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016. At one point, 16 Patna High Court judges were hearing bail matters, the majority of which were prosecutions under the 2016 Act. The apex court asked the Bihar government if any evaluation had been made of the court facilities and manpower needed to handle the volume of cases that could arise under the Act.  

In March 2022, the Bihar government informed the Court that it was seeking changes to the Act in order to improve efficacy and address issues about its implementation.

The latest amendment to the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, comes after four major alterations to Bihar’s liquor law. The first change came in April 2022 when the government implemented strict measures to curb alcohol consumption. The state witnessed a complete ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol, leaving individuals with limited options. This decision aimed to address the social and health issues associated with alcohol abuse, but it had unintended ramifications.

The state cabinet approved the immediate release of first-time offenders in exchange for a fine of Rs 2,000-5,000 instead of the previous sentence of mandatory jail and a fine of Rs 50,000, as per an amendment made in 2018. Even the provision for seizing the property (land or house) or vehicle of the offender upon recovery of liquor can now be reversed.

The prohibition policy in Bihar led to a rise in the black market for alcohol. Bootlegging operations flourished and the smuggling of liquor became rampant. The government’s intention to reduce alcohol-related issues and promote a dry state was overshadowed by the uncontrollable rise of illicit liquor trade. The implementation of the law was met with numerous challenges, and the government soon realised the need to revaluate its strategy.

In an attempt to rectify the situation, the Bihar government began making changes to the liquor law. The modifications primarily focused on adjusting fines imposed on violators, especially those who were caught transporting alcohol illegally. However, each change seemed to bring new challenges, leading to confusion among both law enforcement agencies and citizens.

The most recent change, reducing fines for vehicles carrying alcohol, has had unintended consequences. The fine, which was initially set at 50% of the vehicle’s insurance cover, was deemed excessively steep by vehicle owners. As a result, thousands of four-wheelers piled up across 800 police stations in Bihar. This accumulation further strained the already overburdened law enforcement infrastructure and highlighted the lack of foresight in the decision-making process.

The flip-flop nature of Bihar’s liquor law has sparked public frustration and criticism. Citizens, especially vehicle owners, feel that the constant changes reflect a lack of clear vision and adequate research and have led to a sense of injustice. This highlights the importance of extensive research, stakeholder consultations and thorough impact assessments before implementing significant policy reforms. A holistic approach is crucial for the successful implementation of any regulation, especially those with potential social and economic implications. 

As has been seen with other prohibitions, Bihar’s liquor ban has resulted in an increase in clandestine trade, hooch deaths, and arrests of the poor and defenceless. Since April 2016, 199 people have perished in hooch tragedies, according to government estimates. Over 3.75 lakh instances have been reported, with over 4.25 lakh arrests, 90% of which are related to liquor use. At least 25,000 people have been imprisoned for violating the liquor ban, the majority being impoverished and belonging to the Other Backward Castes, Extremely Backward Castes and Dalits, the political basis of the JD(U)-RJD Mahagathbandhan.

Opposition parties have capitalised on the government’s inconsistent approach, accusing the ruling party of mishandling the liquor regulation issue. The repeated modifications have exposed the government to allegations of making policy decisions without proper consultation or consideration of long-term consequences.

Former Bihar Deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi, a BJP MP now, blamed Nitish Kumar during the time of Bihar’s Chhapra Hooch tragedy while calling the liquor ban a complete failure. He stated: “More than 100 people have died, the government is hiding the figures, and the police are threatening the people saying that they would be sent to jail if they get the post-mortem done. Due to fear, people are going to other ghats and burning dead bodies. An atmosphere of fear has been created by the chief minister saying that whoever drinks will die.

“The BJP is agitating and continuously blaming the policies of the government for the deaths due to consumption of spurious liquor in Saran and Siwan. The BJP has even gone so far as to demand the resignation of Nitish Kumar,” he said.

As Bihar moves forward, it is imperative for the government to learn from its past mistakes and strive for a balanced approach that addresses the social issues associated with alcohol consumption while avoiding the chaos and confusion caused by frequent policy changes.

Excise policies in states vary. Excise duty is a form of indirect tax levied on the production, sale or consumption of goods such as alcohol, tobacco and petroleum products. These policies play a crucial role in revenue generation for states and regulating the consumption of certain goods. Some states have stricter regulations and higher taxes on specific products to discourage their consumption, while others may adopt a more liberal approach. These policies are subject to periodic revisions and amendments in order to align with changing socio-economic conditions and revenue needs. 

—By Ritika Gaur and India Legal Bureau

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