Rumours are rife that the stringent prohibition law in Bihar may be diluted in wake of the menace of illegal liquor smuggling and hooch deaths across the state. After 13 hooch deaths in Nalanda, eleven people have reportedly died in Chapra after consuming hooch.
According to the sources, the Nitish Kumar government has already prepared a draft for diluting the prohibition law and it is expected to be introduced as an amendment bill in the coming budget session.
Complete prohibition in Bihar has been the main plank of Nitish Kumar’s politics but the impracticality of the move has finally been realised after the loss of several lives.
Let's examine the saga of prohibition in Bihar under Nitish Kumar, as well as the the philosophy and politics behind the controversial move since 2016.
The High Priest and Poll Promises
In the run-up to the 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar, there were widespread protests by women's rights activists demanding complete prohibition. Nitish Kumar made a poll promise that he would implement complete prohibition if voted to power and it is claimed that the womenfolk voted en masse for him in 2015.
Consumption of liquor was connected with the increased incidents of domestic violence, particularly in rural areas.
According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16, 30 percent of men falling between the age group of 15 and 49 years were addicted to liquor consumption. The female folk of the same age group informed researchers that they experienced physical, mental, and sexual torture by their husbands mainly due to this addiction.
Nitish Kumar won the election and imposed complete prohibition in Bihar in April 2016.
The Revenue Source That Dried Up
According to the Economic Survey of 2014-15, Bihar used to earn Rs 3,100 crore excise duty from the sale of liquor in the state. The estimated projection of revenue earning from liquor sales was Rs 4,000 crore in 2015-16.
The sizeable amount of excise revenue is clearly an important source for cash-strapped state governments after the implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST).
In Bihar, Rs 2,554 crore are incurred on midday meal scheme for students in government schools as per budget proposals of 2020-21 – this amount is 64 percent, around two-thirds, of the estimated revenue of Rs 4,000 crore from liquor sales in 2015-16.
According to IndiaSpend, Bihar used to consume 2.5 crore litre of liquor before prohibition was imposed.
The Imperfect Crackdown: What the Law States
Since the prohibition had been imposed in Bihar in 2016, around 3.5 lakh people have been arrested for illegal consumption of liquor. The authorities have also seized 1.5 crore litre of hooch.
As per the stringent rules of prohibition, if a bottle of liquor was seized from a house, the entire premises would be subject to legal action.
Patna High Court took a potshot at the prohibition policy asking if "the whole court premises would be seized if a bottle is found?”
According to the prohibition law of Bihar, any person involved in the manufacturing, storing, and smuggling of liquor may face a maximum sentence of 10 years and a Rs 1 lakh fine.
The police can place any person seen consuming liquor under arrest. The individual may face up to seven years in prison, with a fine of up to Rs 7 lakh.
Domestic Violence, Dowry Harassment Comes Down
The decision of prohibition by Nitish Kumar was welcomed by women in Bihar wholeheartedly.
The womenfolk continue to be a sizeable support base for Nitish Kumar as the cases of domestic violence have actually come down since prohibition in Bihar.
There has been a reduction of dowry harassment cases registered under section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) by 37 percent and crime against women has come down by 45 percent.
After the prohibition in 2016, streams and streams of illegal liquor was poured out. However, at the same time, the number of those dying in hooch tragedies has increased steadily since then.
In 2021 alone, there had been reports of death of 90 people due to spurious liquor.
Since the beginning of 2022, 40 deaths have been reported so far including those from Nalanda, Chapra, and Muzaffarpur.
Huge amounts of hooch and illegal liquor have been seized in Bihar since the prohibition. This could not have happened without the connivance of local authorities.
In 2017, Bihar Police claimed that "rats drank up to 9 lakh litre of illegal liquor" seized by authorities kept in government storehouses. No one can be sure whether the rats drank it or it was sold in the local market.
Police conducted a search operation in the Choti Pahari area following the Nalanda hooch deaths but the question is, how did the local police not know about the activities going on in such a vast area?
Injustice Rife in the Face of Law
The pattern of arrest under prohibition law clearly shows prejudice on part of the authorities.
“They are arresting the mules carrying illegal liquor, not the main operators. The mules are generally poor people looking for a job of any kind in order to survive and run their homes.” DM Diwakar, a social scientist stated, IndiaSpend reported.
"The first conviction under the liquor ban in Bihar came in July 2017. Mastan Manjhi, 45, and his brother Painter from the town of Jehanabad, 50 km from Patna, were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and fined Rs 1 lakh each for consuming alcohol. This was before the law was amended in 2018 to reduce the sentence to a three-month jail term or a fine of Rs 50,000 for first-time offenders,“ the report stated.
Most of those arrested under prohibition law belong to Manjhi, the boatmen, and Musahar communities of Mahadalits who toiled hard to earn their daily wages.
“I had to borrow Rs 1 lakh for Mastan’s fine from a private moneylender. The interest is 5% per month. I don’t know how we can sustain the family, buy food, educate our kids and repay the loan at the same time. You can ban liquor but the punishment should be proportionate,” Siyamani, wife of Mastan said, as quoted by IndiaSpend.
Manjhi and a few other tribal communities in Bihar have been involved in distilling country liquor since time immemorial. They were jailed after the prohibition law was implemented in 2016.
They faced the question of survival as prohibition was implemented without giving them options or enough time to shift gears in order to survive.
Amending a Historic Blunder
The prohibition policy of Nitish Kumar is drawing flak due to hooch deaths, and the changing political contours in the state. Supreme Court has also observed that courts in Bihar have been overwhelmed by prohibition cases.
As a result, the Nitish Kumar government is now willing to make some concessions.
According to the proposed draft of the revised legislation, those caught in inebriated conditions will be released after a fine at the spot, but repeated offenders will not get the benefit.
The habitual offenders will face jail sentences and those involved in manufacturing and sale of illegal liquor will continue to be treated as per the existing law.
But the political allies of Nitish Kumar are not satisfied.
“There should be a ground survey before any amendment introduced by Nitish Kumar government on prohibition. If people of Bihar would be in favour of withdrawing prohibition, we would respect, and support their decision,” Danish Rizwan, spokesperson of Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) said.
Interestingly, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in Madhya Pradesh are demanding prohibition, but in Bihar, they are criticising Nitish Kumar for prohibition.
Questions have been raised on the prohibition policy due to hooch deaths. But what is more important to understand is that the political context in the state has changed in the last few years. Nitish Kumar despite being the chief minister is now a junior partner in the ruling dispensation and his political resilience has also given way to his ambition to remain at the helm.
(The article was first published on Quint Hindi. It was translated by Arvind Singh.)