Patna: Opposition Mahagathbandhan questioned the seriousness of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to act against the powerful liquor mafia in the dry state. Contrary to the expectation that a concrete action plan will be announced for the crackdown against the liquor mafia by Kumar at a much-hyped review meeting on the liquor ban on November 16, it ended like a usual official meet.
During the seven-hour-long review meeting, Kumar reiterated that he would not tolerate negligence in enforcing prohibition in the state, and strict action would be taken against the government employees involved in the liquor trade. Kumar also directed authorities to identify liquor smuggling routes and seal the border.
Noticeably, in the past, Kumar has repeatedly reiterated stringent action against bootleggers and directed the state's top police officers to identify persons engaged in selling and consuming liquor.
The meeting failed to come out with a specific action plan to act against the powerful liquor mafia. What surprised the Opposition was that Kumar, who chaired the meeting, was silent on the liquor mafia. His top officials avoided mentioning the role of the liquor mafia in the flourishing liquor trade in the state while briefing the media on the outcome of the review meeting.
After the Opposition leaders, including the Left parties, criticised and targeted Kumar over reports of more than 45 deaths in hooch incidents last week across the state, he had called a meeting to review the lapses in the enforcement of the liquor ban. It was the first time that dozens of people died within a week after consuming illicit liquor since a total prohibition was imposed in 2016.
Besides, sensing growing anger against the failure of the liquor ban in the state amid many deaths due to the consumption of illicit liquor, Kumar held a meeting to send a message to the public that his government would properly enforce a liquor ban.
Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav, also the opposition leader in the Assembly, called out Kumar for the lack of concrete action against the liquor mafia in the review meeting. He attacked Kumar on Wednesday for failing to reply to 15 questions that he had raised hours ahead of the meeting.
Yadav said that Kumar couldn't say anything because he had no answers to his questions. Instead of responding to Yadav's questions, Kumar used his officials to convey the meeting's outcome.
"If he [Kumar] is serious about prohibition, he should not be afraid and avoid such real ground questions," Yadav tweeted.
Yadav had asked Kumar about the number of review meetings that he has convened since the liquor ban was imposed in the state nearly six years ago. He also wanted to know the "positive outcomes" of the "thousands of meetings" held by Kumar.
Yadav raised the issue about the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government arresting lakhs of poor and Dalits under the Liquor Prohibition Act, with most being implicated. Yadav highlighted that the real liquor mafias are beyond the government's reach. He dared Kumar to provide data on mafias, liquor operators, smugglers and police officials who have been sent to jail in connection with the liquor trade.
He asked Kumar how liquor is readily available in the dry state and how the liquor consignments' free flow continues in different districts that are not connected with any border of other states or neighbouring country Nepal.
"In recent years, the state government has seized lakhs of litres of liquor. How does it reach Bihar, and who is responsible for it?"
Yadav alleged that the government was hand in glove with liquor mafias as, after every big seizure of illicit liquor consignments by police, it cannot reach the actual operators.
"If anyone is arrested, the officials present weak charge sheets in the court that result in bail. Can Kumar answer how many cases the Bihar government has filed in the Supreme court after it lost in lower courts and Patna High Court?" Yadav had asked.
Yadav further wanted to know why lower rank chowkidars and police officers ( SHO) are suspended or terminated after each hooch incident.
"Are they the only ones responsible? What about higher rank police officers?"
Yadav insisted that Kumar provide data on how many DSPs, SPs, and SSPs rank officers were suspended and terminated under the Liquor Prohibition Act.
Yadav also questioned Kumar's helplessness to take strict action against liquor smuggling by a close relative of Bihar minister Ram Surat Rai, who hails from BJP. The Opposition had raised the issue in the Assembly. It staged a protest march to Raj Bhawan demanding action against the minister for his alleged smuggling of illicit liquor in the state.
Last week, five Left parties - Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), Revolutionary Socialist Party and All India Forward Bloc - in a joint press statement, said: "Illicit liquor trade is flourishing in the state with the protection of the state power and help of the police."
Left parties leaders dared the state government to probe into the politician-administration-liquor mafia nexus. This nexus, they claim, is behind the production and sale of illicit and spurious liquor. They said flourishing illicit and spurious liquor trade is not possible without the patronage and support of a powerful liquor nexus. As a result, illicit liquor has become a synonym for the death of the poor in Bihar. Instead of curbing the liquor mafia, the poor are being punished through the draconian Prohibition Act.
A few days ago, BJP state president Sanjay Jaiswal questioned how the liquor mafia is ruling the roost from top to bottom in the flourishing illicit liquor trade in each state district. Jaiswal further said the total prohibition on alcohol would not be successful unless strict action is taken against the mafia. He also called out the police's collusion with the mafia that facilitated the illicit liquor trade.
Last week at least six people died after allegedly consuming illicit liquor in Muzaffarpur district- the fourth district in a week where people have died in similar incidents. As many as 20 people have died in Gopalganj, 17 in West Champaran and six in Samastipur, with an overall toll of 45. West Champaran is also Jaiswal's parliamentary constituency.
These incidents have exposed the Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's failure to check and control the illicit liquor trade. According to reports, illicit liquor has claimed 95 lives since January 2021. Despite Kumar declaring Bihar a dry state in 2016, country-made and foreign liquor continue to be readily available.