Bihar often remains in the headlines due to the daily incidents and the political endgames it frequently witnesses. In a similar manner, the issue of the prohibition of liquor in the state has become a topic for hot discussions among the political circles, the civil society and the general populace.
During discussions and debates in the Constituent Assembly in 1948, the concept of a liquor ban was opposed by BH Khardekar, a leader from Maharashtra. He stated, “[…] and most of you are ignorant of a very important fact […] you do not know the essential difference between drinkers and drunkards.” This logic eventually led to Prohibition not being imposed across India. Furthermore, the Constitution did not cite Prohibition as a legally-enforceable matter; instead, it was in the Directive Principles of State Policy.
Even with this understanding, Nitish Kumar announced a complete ban on liquor from April 1, 2016. Under sections 29 to 41 of the Bihar Excise and Prohibition Act, 2016, consuming, storing, selling and manufacturing alcohol are non- bailable offences.
One would do well to consider the alcohol ban in Bihar, keeping in mind the popular saying “Surya ast, Bihar mast (As the sun goes low, Bihar gets high)”. In this context, it would seem that this was an immensely well-thought step which would resonate well, especially in rural Bihar and promoting harmony among families. In hindsight, this decision also had the target of gaining support and votes from women. But fresh statistics reveal that this decision has backfired – and it’s now giving pain to the very people it was supposed to benefit.
On completing two years of the liquor ban, Nitish Kumar had indirectly hinted that it’s the poor people from lowly castes who had benefited the most from the ban. However, the arrests under liquor ban law need critical analysis.
The first conviction under the law, in Jehanabad, was that of a Dalit. 45-year-old Maya Devi of Munger, belonging to an Extremely Backward Caste, was the first woman to be convicted under the new prohibition law. She used to brew country liquor to earn her livelihood.
A report by the Indian Express provides further details on the figures – covering the three central jails of Gaya, Motihari and Patna, 10 district jails and nine sub-jails. The numbers clearly show that most of the convictions are from the low and marginalised sections of the society.
The statements of the senior bureaucrats and police officers are contradictory. When contacted by the Indian Express, Keshav Kumar Jha, Excise Superintendent, Motihari, said: “Our records show that 58 per cent of those arrested were consumers.” In addition to this, the DIG of Bihar, KS Dwivedi, said: “I have no knowledge of these figures, the Prisons department may have them. But I can say that there would always be a less number of affluent and upper castes in the group as police often find it convenient to conduct raids in open colonies and slums.”
On the other hand, according to veteran journalist Sankarshan Thakur’s account in the Telegraph, it was clearly revealed that in Patna, liquor consumption was on the rise without any severe crackdown In fact, the sale of liquor here ran rampant, with the help of babus and police officials. In the article, Sankarshan writes, “One home in Patna orders bulk and decants it all into a mustard oil tin which is then stowed away at the back of the kitchen shelves. Another squirrels the stuff into empty cough syrup bottles that are kept scattered about the house.”
He further says, “A driver jumped job last year. This year, he is imagining a house on the plot of land he has since bought. ‘I have a few hired girls,’ he reveals to me, ‘Smart girls. They wear jeans and carry bags, and in those bags they carry bottles from alcohol dumps. I pay them per sortie, it still leaves me a huge profit.’ Isn’t he afraid? ‘But I pay the police too,’ he laughs, ‘They’re on the team. They seize some to make up their numbers, they let most of it go for a price.’ Where the best of the impounded stuff goes is another story, and quite a story it is. A while ago, substantive quantities of alcohol confiscated and kept in police holds in Patna was found to be suddenly missing, as if it had evaporated off the bottles. Special delivery to those secure west Patna homes with sentry posts?”
The moot questions remain: why are only people belonging to low and backward castes arrested for this crime? Do liquor consumers largely belong to lower castes only? Just because they live in rural backward areas, open colonies and slums, do they qualify to get convicted? And this rule doesn’t apply on others who find a safe passage for ‘daaru pe charcha’ in a city like Patna and many others. Even Kumar Amit, former Excise Superintendent, Muzaffarpur, admitted to this – “We have been able to arrest only small-time traders and country liquor brewers; the big fish are seldom caught. Even when a huge consignment is seized, it is the drivers and support staff who are arrested. The ringleaders get away because they run the business smartly, by proxy.”
If we compare all of these statements, it’s quite evident that a few sections of society are being legitimised and leveraged by the Nitish Kumar government by vilifying people from the lowest strata, as they are weak and unable to retaliate or mount pressure on the government through the channels of money and power.
With little secretiveness but by using cunning methods, liquor continues to be available in Bihar, albeit at higher prices. Once again, it will be handy to refer to the figures – the data on the amount seized can tell us how much liquor still flows into Bihar. The intention here is to question the method, and not the motive of liquor prohibition. As social scientist DM Diwakar puts it, “When a government tries to turn social reformer without alternative arrangements and rehabilitation, it is natural for youths, mostly from a poor socio-economic background, to turn to the liquor trade as an easy way of earning money. The government has failed as a social reformer. It did not look at rehabilitation, employment and governance.”
The sole imposition of a complete ban on alcohol doesn’t serve the purpose of having a prosperous society. Instead of draconian acts, strict rules along with robust propaganda and positive messages aimed at stemming liquor consumption should be the way forward. Otherwise, imposing a ban may only elicit a temporary sigh of relief from the people. At the same time, more harm will be done to the people, which may well become an irreparable loss for Bihar. Instead of inclusivity, people from marginalised sections are being deprived of opportunities to lead a prosperous life, here in Bihar.