Court cases, imprisonment and hooch deaths: Will amending Bihar’s prohibition law change things?

In the last fortnight, 18 people died in Bihar after consuming spurious liquor. Two months ago, at least 39 people died in a hooch tragedy. About 632,000 people are booked under the state’s prohibition law and many are languishing in jails with their case hearings delayed indefinitely. The excise department is currently drafting a proposal to dilute the law itself.

Lovely Kumari
| Updated: January 28th, 2022

The reports of deaths due to consumption of illicit liquor in Bihar have continued to make headlines ever since Bihar was declared a dry State in April, 2016 under a stringent law named as Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016. (Photos by special arrangement)

Patna, Bihar

January 26, Republic Day: Five dead after consuming illicit liquor in Amsari village, Buxar.

January 15, Makar Sankranti: 13 dead after consuming hooch in Chhoti Pahari village, Nalanda.

Death toll due to the consumption of spurious liquor in various districts of Bihar, a dry state since 2016, continues to soar with the state administration failing to check on the illicit alcohol trade. 

Last year in November, between Diwali and Chhath Puja, at least 39 people across the state had died, of which 16 belonged to Dakshin Telhua village in West Champaran district. More deaths have followed this month.

As criticism against the government rises, the state bureaucracy is considering to amend the stringent liquor ban law and tone it down in order to reduce the legal caseload and the burden on the overcrowded prisons. The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 prohibits manufacture, storage, distribution, transportation, sale, purchase and consumption of liquor in the state.

The proposed amendment, which is likely to be passed in the upcoming Budget session in March, is supposed to provide a relaxed punishment for the non-habitual offenders of the law. 

Also Read: Bihar hooch deaths: 16 men from Dakshin Telhua village lose their lives after consuming spurious liquor

“The state government intends to insert  new ‘Sub-Sections’ in the Act,” Krishna Kumar Paswan, Joint Commissioner of Prohibition Excise & Registration Department in Bihar, told Gaon Connection

“The amendment may be brought through an ordinance or the proposed Bihar Prohibition and Excise Amendment Bill, 2022 during the next session of the state legislature,” he added. 

The proposed amendment seeks to prefer penalties over jail terms and reduce the jail term in the event of failure to pay penalties by those who flout the 2016 act.

“At present, the draft is being written and perhaps may be ready in February or March,” the official said. 

Mayhem on Makar Sankranti

Over 70 kilometres from the corridors of the excise department’s office in Patna where bureaucrats are mulling over amending the state’s prohibition law, 27-year-old Jyoti Devi is oblivious of the ongoing discussions. She doesn’t care much either, as she lost her father, Munna Mistri, on Makar Sankranti, a major festival across Bihar and the entire country.  

Daaru khoob peete the, uss din bhi piye. Subah ko paet me jalan hua to doctor k paas le gaye, daaktar bole khatam hai ye aadmi,” Jyoti Devi, a resident of Chhoti Pahari village in Bihar Sharif, had told reporters after her father’s death. 

[He used to drink liquor a lot, he drank that day as well (January 14) at night. In the morning, he complained of a severe burning sensation in his stomach following which we took him to the hospital. The doctor informed us that he was no more]

Jyoti’s family isn’t the only household where wails of the mourning women echoed on Makar Sankranti. As many as 13 men lost their lives in this village in Nalanda district on Makar Sankranti, January 15. 

In an official statement issued in response to the deaths, Nalanda District Magistrate Shashank Shubhankar told the press on January 16 that 11 deaths had been attributed to drinking illicit liquor.

“On the basis of the doctors’ report, it seems all the deaths were attributed to the consumption of illicit liquor. So far, across Nalanda district, 184 liters of hooch (local alcoholic drink) and 225 liters foreign liquor have been recovered from a house at Chhoti Pahari. A total of 34 persons indulging in the sale of liquor have been arrested as well,” the district magistrate said. 

On January 28, when Gaon Connection contacted the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Bihar Sharif to enquire about the autopsy report, he informed that it had not arrived yet.

“The number of deaths has increased to 12 but the post-mortem report is not out yet,” Kumar Anurag told Gaon Connection. However, the local villagers claim the death toll was 19.

Also Read: Here’s what it took for an alcoholic to realise that his family has had enough and it’s time to quit

Responding to the outcry against the sale of liquor in the area, the Bihar Police has ordered the suspension of Surendra Prasad, the station house officer of the Sohsarai police station on January 16. 

“He has been suspended on a charge of dereliction of duty, as he failed to prevent the illegal production and sale of liquor in the Chhoti Pahari village which comes under Sohsarai police station,” Rakesh Rathi, Inspector General of Police (IGP) was quoted.

Hooch tragedy and political blame game 

The reports of deaths due to consumption of illicit liquor in Bihar have continued to make headlines ever since Bihar was declared a dry State in April, 2016 under a stringent law named as Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016.

The opposition parties in Bihar have repeatedly targeted Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for the failure to control the sale of liquor in the state despite declaring it a ‘dry state’.

Pappu Yadav, leader of the Jan Adhikar Party, visited the grieving families in the Chhoti Pahari village on January 16 and offered financial assistance. 

“Currently, 632,000 people who were booked under the liquor law have been sent to jails across the state. They haven’t got bail yet,” Yadav told Gaon Connection. “People are dying. The system is making profit from this liquor smuggling even after liquor is banned in the state,” he added

“Under the supervision of Nitish govt and administration, liquor mafia is selling and delivering liquor to doorsteps. There is no fear at all. Nitish government has to rethink about the provisions of the stringent liquor law and has to find a proper way to bring these mafias to justice,” the leader of the Jan Adhikar Party said.

Pappu Yadav consoling the family members of the deceased.

Meanwhile, two months back, on November 30, empty liquor bottles were found within the premises the state assembly in Patna following which, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav had accused the leaders of the ruling party Janata Dal United (JDU) to be hand in glove with the illicit liquor mafia in the state.

However, when Gaon Connection approached Ajay Alok, a Patna-based  JD(U) spokesperson  to comment on the situation, he claimed that the liquor ban had successfully reduced the sale of liquor across the state.

Also Read: ‘Sharaab cheez hi aisi hai, na chhodi jaaye’: Neelesh Misra pens a powerful poem on alcohol abuse — WATCH

“The Bihar Prohibition and Excise law will be implemented in a more stringent way across the state. We are not going to scrap this law because this has been a game changer for the entire society,” JD(U) spokesperson Alok said. He went on to add that women became safer in the state after this law was introduced. “Domestic violence has been reduced. We always supported this law,” he added

Mounting caseload choking courts, burdening prisons

Deaths due to illicit liquor isn’t the only fallout of the prohibition law in Bihar. Cases booked under this law have been piling up in the courts across the state and prisons are overcrowded with accused who are even unable to get bail.

Bajrang Babu, public prosecutor in the Excise Department in Muzaffarpur told Gaon Connection that the courts and jails have been clogged due to the liquor ban law. 

“Ideally, the ratio of judges per case has to be 1:1000 (1 judge per 1000 cases) but in districts like Muzaffarpur, the ratio is 1:13000 (1 judge per 13,000 cases),” Babu said. “In such a situation, other cases are taking too long to be disposed of and are causing delayed justice to people who desperately need it,” he added.

It is reported that jails in the state have become overcrowded too.

“Altogether Bihar’s 59 jails have the capacity to accommodate about 46,600 prisoners. However, there are currently an estimated 72,000 prisoners in these jails,” Dipak Kumar, a Kishanganj-based Juvenile Justice Board member told Gaon Connection.

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On December 27, last year, Chief Justice of India N V Ramana while delivering a public address at Smt Velagapudi Durgamba Siddhartha Law College in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh had remarked that the liquor prohibition law in Bihar was an example of lack of foresight in drafting legislation and has led to courts in the state getting inundated with cases.

“A lack of foresight in legislating can directly result in the clogging of courts. For example, the introduction of the Bihar Prohibition Act 2016 resulted in the High Court being clogged with bail applications. Because of this, a simple bail application takes one year to be disposed of,” the Chief Justice was quoted.

Will an amendment to the prohibition law resolve the matter in Bihar where people, mostly rural poor, continue to die due to the consumption of spurious liquor?