Following the passage of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise (Amendment) Act, 2022, on March 30 last, the General Administration Department of the Government of Bihar issued a Governor’s Order Gazette Notification on April 1, specifying the list of officers designated as Special Executives. Magistrate in Districts and Sub-Divisions to deal with liquor-related cases after being conferred the powers of 2nd Class Judicial Magistrate by the Patna High Court.
Even after three months, the HC approval is still awaited.
According to officials aware of the development, the HC has some reservations in vesting judicial powers in districts and sub-divisions with officers designated as special executive magistrates to reduce the burden on the courts.
This means that despite the new Act, the old judicial process will continue.
According to official figures, about 25% of the total pending cases in the lower courts and 20% in the High Courts are related to prohibition cases. In 2019, the high court, alarmed by the growing backlog, had asked the state government to present a plan on how it intended to dispose of liquor-related cases.
In July last year, the High Court had directed that all proceedings related to confiscation of property under the Prohibition Act should be initiated and concluded within 90 days from the date of appearance of the parties concerned.
Bihar government, facing constant opposition inside and outside the House and harsh comments from the Supreme Court due to frequent hooch tragedies and mounting legal cases, has decided to bring another round of amendments to reduce penal provisions and introduce financial penalties. , in an effort to ease the burden on the courts.
Officials of the Prohibition, Excise and Registration Department said the delay in approval of the list of appointed executive magistrates had not affected the drive against liquor in the state in any way, as enforcement has been further tightened since April 1, with around 23,697 cases registered under liquor. Law only in Excise Courts designated by the Police and Excise Department during the last three months (upto June 25).
Patna under maximum surveillance has the highest number of cases (2312), East Champaran (1,191), West Champaran (1,064), Madhubani (899), Gopalganj (896), Nalanda (886), Saran (886), Saran (855) and Bhojpur (603). ), Sheikhpur (114) recorded the lowest number of cases.
Smugglers continue to use road, rail and water to transport liquor despite the risk of being caught with increased vigilance by boats, drones, helicopters and the Excise Department’s own force to complement the police.
Under the 2022 Amendment Act, first-time offenders are allowed to be released by order of a special magistrate after depositing a fine. If the offender is unable to deposit the fine, he/she faces simple imprisonment for one month. The Bill, however, does not give the right to release the accused on payment of fine, as the Executive Magistrate can refuse release on the basis of a police or excise officer’s report. The same process applies for the release of impounded vehicles.
Although the government had notified 395 officers at once for the new act to be appointed as special executive magistrates across the state, it was stuck in court. “The court seems to have its reservations with that. Above all, the discretion to release or not release a person creates a discriminatory situation in the hands of the administration, which is likely to be challenged again in court,” said former Additional Solicitor General SD Sanjay.
Joint Commissioner (Prohibition) Krishna Nandan Paswan said that the implementation of the ban is going on in full swing. “The court has to decide if and when to confer judicial powers on the appointed Executive Magistrates. Working with full vigilance as far as the department is concerned. With ever-increasing vigilance, while those involved in smuggling are caught, there is no visibility of liquor in the open,” he said.
According to the department’s statistics, under the new Act, the total number of accused arrested and released from jail on fine between April 1 and June 25 was 963 with an average jail stay of nine days. Similarly, since April 1, the number of vehicles impounded and later released under the new law is 117 (till June 25). It has brought ₹74 lakhs in fines to the government coffers from impounded and released vehicles since April 1. ₹54 lakhs from the owner of the land or plot where liquor was found.
The Bihar government had imposed total prohibition in Bihar on April 5, 2016 with a unanimous House resolution within six months of coming to power. The CM had made a pre-election announcement to the women of the Self Help Groups (SHGs) that the ban would be enforced in the state. However, later political parties started pointing fingers for various reasons including the way of its implementation, continued smuggling and the role of the police, but no one could openly oppose it. The government made some claims by bringing some changes, but stuck with the ban.