Bihar cabinet approves liquor law amendments: first-time offenders to be released with fine, traders’ property to be confiscated

Bihar’s cabinet on Tuesday approved proposed amendments to the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act 2016, which reduce penalties for first-time ‘drinkers’ and let them off the hook with a fine instead than an arrest.

Under the proposed changes, movable and immovable property of arrested alcohol traders would be confiscated while frequent drinkers would be fined and imprisoned.

The proposed amendments, which The Indian Express reported on January 21, will likely be brought before the Legislative Assembly during the current budget session. If passed, it will be the fourth time the law has been amended.

Although the government has yet to disclose how much to fine ‘first-time drinkers’, sources said it would be ‘reasonable’ as the basic idea behind the relaxation is to prevent the prisons from clogging. If first-time offenders fail to pay the fine, under the amendments, they face a simple jail term of one year.

The proposed amendment also provides for the police and excise department to consider easing (including waiving a fine) if drinkers are successful in identifying the source of the alcohol purchase.

The proposed changes focus more on liquor dealers and smugglers, whose assets may be confiscated during the trial phases. Vehicles used in the liquor trade would be confiscated and could then be auctioned off, under the proposed changes. Smaller vehicles, however, would not be confiscated.

The changes come amid criticism of the government for how it has implemented the law. Last month, Chief Justice NV Ramana pointed it out as an example of “lack of foresight”. He said this had resulted in the High Court “being cluttered with bail applications…a simple bail application takes a year to decide”.

Records show more than four lakh arrests have been made under the law so far with 20,000 bail applications pending. Bihar’s 59 prisons have a capacity of 47,000 but now have around 70,000 inmates, nearly 25,000 of them under the Liquor Act.

Another key trigger for the proposed changes, sources say, is the recent increase in hooch deaths; more than 50 in Nalanda, Saran, West Champaran and Gopalganj between November 2021 and mid-January 2022. The ruling Janata Dal (U) is also under pressure from its main alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which continues to attack the “poor implementation” of the liquor law.

The main proposed amendments

Under Article 37, the penalty for alcohol is a prison term of five years to 10 years and even life. The amendment provides for a “penalty which may be served by the state government and failure to pay such penalty shall result in simple imprisonment for one month”. It further says: “Provided that in case of recidivism the Government of the State may, by notice, prescribe an additional penalty or imprisonment, or both.”

All offenses are currently tried by the courts of first instance. Under an amendment, offenses “shall be tried by way of summary judgment by an executive magistrate, below the rank of deputy receiver”. This should speed up the process and unclog the courts.

Removed section 55 which made all offenses under the law non-cumulative – this means cases can now be withdrawn, a compromise between two parties can be made in or out of court.

Insertion in article 57 to allow the release, subject to payment of the penalty, of vehicles confiscated for transporting alcohol.

Removal of Chapter VII of the law which deals with the internment and externation of the accused under which there were restrictions on their movement. This will also include the deletion of its key articles: article 67 (extension of the period of externation); Article 68 (temporary return authorization); Article 70 (immediate arrest).

To focus on criminal networks rather than minor individual violations, a new subsection 50A has been provided which defines smuggling as an “organized crime”.