Centre rejects Punjab CM’s call for death penalty for first-time drug offences

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Central Government has rejected Punjab Chief Minister – Capt. Amarinder Singh’s proposal to introduce the death penalty for first-time offenders under the NDPS Act. In July this year, the Punjab CM had written to the Home Minister – Shri Rajnath Singh asking that the NDPS Act be amended to introduce capital punishment for drug peddling/smuggling. According to the CM’s letter, despite stringent enforcement of the NDPS Act in the State, drug peddlers were ‘getting away’, as the death penalty is reserved only for a subsequent offence.

Documents obtained by the Lawyers Collective through RTI reveal that on 24 July 2018, the Punjab CM’s proposal was forwarded by the Ministry of Home to the Department of Revenue (DoR) in the Ministry of Finance, which is in charge of legislative and policy matters concerning the NDPS Act. The DoR had received a similar reference from the High Court of Himachal Pradesh in 2016. At the time, it had consulted agencies like the Narcotics Control Bureau, the Ministry of Law and Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and concluded that punishments for first-time offences under the NDPS Act are sufficiently stringent. Reiterating the same, the DoR noted that offences involving commercial quantity, external dealing and financing of illicit trafficking are punishable with a minimum sentence of rigourous imprisonment for 10 yrs, which may extend to 20 along with fine of Rs 1 lakh and above. The CM’s claim that first-time offenders are ‘getting away’ was, accordingly, rejected.

In relation to the death penalty, the DoR noted that the NDPS Act is based on international conventions, which do not mandate the death penalty for drug-law violations. After making a faint reference to UN standards, the DoR stated that drug-offences do not meet the international threshold for imposing capital punishment. In particular, the DoR took note of the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) opposition to the death penalty for disagreeing with Shri Amarinder Singh’s demand.

In a reply to the Punjab CM dated 9 August 2018, the Minister of State for Finance – Shri Shiv Pratap Shukla stated: – “there is no need for any further amendment to enhance the punishment/penalty for cases under the NDPS Act, 1985, at present.”

The Lawyers Collective, which had challenged the mandatory death penalty for certain repeat offences under section 31A of the NDPS Act before the Bombay High Court [2011] and advocated for its abolition in Parliament [2012], inter alia on the grounds of non-compliance with international human rights and drug control norms, welcomes the Centre’s decision. Given the increasing clamor for more and severe punishments in the ‘war on drugs’, the DOR’s stand against the death penalty for first time offences under the NDPS Act is particularly encouraging.

The Lawyers Collective supports the repeal of the death penalty for all crimes including repeat offences under section 31A of the NDPS Act.