Bihar will jail you for your tenant’s drinking habits, centre for your underage son’s driving

By: | Updated: August 8, 2016 9:03 PM

Apart from the revenue losses to the state and the issue of whether it serves any purpose other than encouraging illegal bootlegging, the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act is draconian in nature

Listening to music while drinking can influence how much you like the taste of beer. (Reuters)For anyone found to be consuming or even in possession of alcohol – toddy has now been removed from the ban – the Act says that family members of the person will be criminally liable; ditto for the owner as well as occupants of a building where such illegal acts are taking place. (Reuters)

Apart from the revenue losses to the state and the issue of whether it serves any purpose other than encouraging illegal bootlegging, the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act is draconian in nature and, according to an analysis by PRS Legislative Research, is probably also in contravention of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. For anyone found to be consuming or even in possession of alcohol – toddy has now been removed from the ban – the Act says that family members of the person will be criminally liable; ditto for the owner as well as occupants of a building where such illegal acts are taking place. That means if your teenage son has quietly gone and bought a bottle of booze, you could well be facing a prison sentence of at least 10 years and a fine of at least Rs 1 lakh. It doesn’t even have to be your teenage son, it could even be your tenant, or a neighbor in a group housing society. This, as PRS says, may violate Article 14 – that provides for equality before the law – since holding family members or neighbors liable for someone else’s action is arbitrary in nature. Article 21, similarly, holds that no one can be deprived of their lives or personal liberty except according to a ‘procedure established by law’. Surely presuming that family members/neighbors knew about the offence – and were in a position to do something about it – and are therefore criminally liable cannot be called ‘procedure established by law’? The crowning glory – actually, the blatant disregard of normal procedures of the law – is the presumption of guilt until innocence is proved. Just imagine the multiple windows this opens for extortion, not just by the police but by private citizens as well.

If it wasn’t bad enough that a state government has come out with khap panchayat-style governance, the central government has done something quite similar. Given that the country has around 5 lakh road accidents each year and 1.5 lakh people lose their lives – a lot more get injured and maimed – India does need to tackle this on a war footing. Though a large part of the fault is also to do with roads that don’t have proper dividers and/or access control, the amendments in the Motor Vehicles Act that have been cleared by the Cabinet seem to assume all of this is the motorists’ fault. Even so, the sharp increase in penalties – that for speeding is up 10 times, from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000 – is welcome. What is truly amazing, though, is the section on juveniles which holds their guardians or the owners of the vehicles as guilty – the penalty is Rs 25,000 with up to three years in prison. Once again, this seems violative of Articles 14 and 21. There have, it is true, been several cases of juveniles killing people while speeding, especially after getting drunk, but surely putting their parents in jail is not the answer – why not try them as adults as has been sanctioned by some courts in particularly heinous crimes? If wards/neighbours are to be held responsible for the drinking/driving habits of children, will this be extended to other areas including rape and murder? The sooner the statutes are struck down by the courts the better.

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