Facing blowback, Nitish further dilutes stand on liquor law

THE BIHAR government’s decision to bring in amendments further diluting stringent provisions of the state prohibition law is another indication of the realisation by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the dwindling returns of his policy.

This coincides with rising heat from the Opposition over more than 60 deaths in five recent hooch tragedies and strictures passed by the Supreme Court over the crowding of jails by those caught under the prohibition law. Over 4 lakh cases are currently registered under the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, with over 3.5 lakh arrests.

Though most of them have got bail, every third or fourth of total 76,000 prisoners in jails still are accused under the liquor law. Bihar prisons have capacity to accommodate only 55,000 inmates. The Patna High Court and district high courts have over 20,000 bail pleas pending under the law.

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Recently, Chief Justice of India N V Ramana cited the Bihar liquor law as a case study in “lack of legislative foresight”. On Tuesday, the state informed the Court about the planned amendments.

The main thrust of the new amendments, to be taken up during the ongoing Budget Session, is cutting down arrests. Now, those held for the first time for drinking can be released with a fine, or if they are in jail, face a summary trial and release. Most of those in jail are first-time offenders.

It is the fourth time the government will be amending the Act, since it was passed six years ago. Earlier, other stringent provisions such as arrest of all family members if even one of them was found drinking as well as community fines had been done away with.

Recently, in another, big concession, the Bihar government announced Rs 1 lakh assistance to vendors of neera or fresh toddy. It was seen as a measure to keep the Scheduled Caste Pasi community, who are largely involved in neera extraction from palm and date trees, happy. At a recent meeting, Nitish said: “Neera is good for health. We will support those who sell it.”

The changes in the law and government stand follow attacks by the Opposition over the recent hooch deaths, with the RJD noting that there has been no let-up in seizures of liquor including IMFL, despite six years of prohibition, and despite the government talking of measures such as use of drone cameras to detect liquor units.

The Opposition has also brought up the fact that back in 2008, the Nitish government had liberalised liquor sales, taking its excise earnings from Rs 500 crore to Rs 5,000 crore.

The visit by a Rajasthan government team on Tuesday to study the impact of total prohibition in Bihar, in fact, has been the only good news for Nitish in a long time on this front.

Publicly, the Chief Minister continues to stand by the prohibition law, even saying that “those who drink cannot be called padha likha (educated)”.

Lately, Nitish has been trying to incorporate the law into his larger ‘Samaj Sudhar Abhiyan’. Travelling the state, meeting people, Nitish has linked prohibition to social reform measures such as dowry-less and inter-caste marriages.

However, privately, the CM who is now into his fourth term knows that the woman vote bank he assiduously developed – via first cycles to girls for higher studies and then the prohibition law – needs reimagining. As other proponents of prohibition have realised before Nitish, liquor is almost impossible to rid off. And many women who celebrated the law for decreasing incidents of domestic abuse by men now point to their husbands and sons spending up to three times more to get their alcohol fix.

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