Thursday, October 06, 2016

Nitish Kumar-Medha Patkar prohibition campaign fails to address social reform need, may "criminalize" social drinkers

Medha Patkar with Nitish Kumar
By Our Representative
Even as well-known social activist Medha Patkar's Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is running a full-blown anti-liquor campaign in the Narmada valley, eliciting the support of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar (click HERE), at least two of her top supports, both activist-experts, have suggested that there is something fundamentally wrong with the new prohibition fad which has gripped parts of India.
Writer-activist Nandini Oza, who has been associated with the anti-Narmada dam campaign of NBA, has particularly taken strong exception to Bihar’s anti-liquor Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, considered by Patkar-inspired Nasha Mukti Bharat Andolan as saying it “ideal for the country”, saying, its severe punitive actions are “draconian.”
Writing in her blog, Oza says, “In a society, to consider substance abuse by an individual as a grievous criminal offence punishable by long imprisonment will be detrimental to both the individual as well as the society at large. This fact is well established by social work research and studies.”
Pointing to how the Bihar law is being pushed not only by the Government in Bihar, but also by “a number of leading social movements”, promoting it as a “model law that should be implemented across the entire country”, Oza refers to “serious issues with the law” which were struck down by the Patna High Court on September 30 as it would “bring in a virtual police-raj in the state.”
"The new law which was notified after this High Court judgement, unfortunately, has similar draconian provisions”, regrets Oza, “By studying carefully the Act and the judgement of the Bihar High Court on the Act, one feels that a whole community, the whole family including women and children, already aggrieved by a substance abuser in the family, could be further punishable under this Act.”
Oza insists, “Social awareness, social support and social as well as economic reform measures are required to check socially undesirable behaviour relating to addiction and substance abuse, rather than severe punitive actions aimed at the addict.”
According to Oza, who happens to hail from a state where prohibition was long implemented, Gujarat, the punishments “for possession, consumption, storage or transportation of even small quantity of alcohol” under the law have “no scope whatsoever for warning, correction, mitigation, reformation, rehabilitation and probation of an addict or a person in possession of alcohol or other intoxicating substances.”
“Along with the addicts, it criminalizes social drinkers as well”, she points out, adding, “Worse still, it has the scope of considering the family of an addict criminal, too, with strict punishments! It has severe provisions like arrest without warrant, confiscation of premises, sealing of premises, etc. where any crime under this act is said to have been committed.”
“Furthermore”, she says, “It has the provision of collective fine for the 'wrong doing' of individual/ individuals in an area and the whole community living there could be held responsible for repeat offenses under the act. Besides, a lot of powers are given to the collector and even the police.”
“It is important to note that after the enforcement of this Act, twelve people have died after drinking spurious alcohol in Gopalganj, Bihar”, says Oza, adding, “A very large number of people, around thirteen thousand including women have already been jailed in the State of Bihar.”
Referring to Oza's blog, another top Patkar protagonist, Shripad Dharmadhikary, who heads Manthan Adhyayan Kendra in Badwani, Madhya Pradesh, says there is enough reason for a “review” of the Bihar law, adding, “While the debate on prohibition (of liquor) as a way to address the social evils of drinking is an old one, the recent law enacted by Bihar brings a new urgency to the debate.”
He further says, “On one hand, the law has draconian provisions of punishment and unbridled powers to the state apparatus; on the other hand, leading social movements are supporting it, even arguing that this be the model for the rest of the country. This is clearly a cause for concern.”

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