With thirty people dying in hooch tragedies in three districts on Holi, the alcohol-linked death toll in “dry” Bihar continues to scale new heights. Maybe the Nitish Kumar government implemented the prohibition on 1 April 2016 with sincere intentions. But six years on, the administration is fooling nobody when it claims that those who have died succumbed to illnesses and not the consumption of spurious liquor. Another forty people died during Diwali last year and thirteen in January in Nalanda, the Chief Minister’s home district.
On 28 March, the Bihar Assembly moved an amendment to the stringent alcohol ban law to relax the penalties for violation of the prohibition. Now, a first-time violator would undergo a sentence of one month or be let off with a fine. It only proves the point of critics of the ban on liquor that its consumption, manufacture, sale, purchase, distribution, and transportation were not as simple to stop as the government initially believed.
The problem began with how this ban came to be. For nine years until 2016, there was a non-stop promotion of booze culture in Bihar, a policy the government justified to boost revenues. Then in 2016, the Kumar-led government took a U-turn from its own excise policy. Bacchus lovers were said to have aided the government’s approach to alcohol, including some who supposedly had the chief minister’s ear.
The infamous 2009 liquor scam, which ran into hundreds of crores, made amply clear how wrong things were at the top. The then excise minister, Jamshed Ashraf, had handed letters to the chief minister on 14 January 2010, Makar Sankranti day, which allegedly revealed the names of people involved in an excise scam. Ashraf was not praised but sacked by the state government. Then again, that was the high noon of Kumar’s first term in power, when the media was unprepared to take on ‘Sushasan Babu’, whom it hailed as Bihar’s turnaround man.
Between 2016 and 2007, the state government’s New Excise Policy was in action in Bihar. It was in total contrast to the one in force at present. Several women’s organisations had protested against the state’s push favouring alcohol consumption. The problem can even be traced to 2000, when Bihar was bifurcated to create Jharkhand. After this, the mineral-rich regions and source of most economic activities were no longer a part of Bihar. The area known as Bihar today suffered hugely after the bifurcation. The Rabri Devi government took some countervailing measures to prop up Bihar’s economy, but they were inadequate.
Between November 2000 and November 2005, National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaders—the NDA was in power at the Centre between 1998 and 2004—spared no opportunity to criticise the Rabri government for its poor handling of the state’s economy. In retaliation, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Rabri Devi’s Bihar, charged the Vajpayee government with denying it the Rs. 1,79,000 crore economic package sought on the eve of the bifurcation. The Bihar Assembly unanimously passed a resolution in this regard just before the creation of Jharkhand. Thus it was an all-party demand.
However, once Kumar became Chief Minister on 24 November 2005, he realised the gravity of the state’s economic crisis. A year before his Janata Dal (United) or JD-U came to power, on 22 May 2004, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Manmohan Singh had attained power at the Centre. RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav, his party colleague Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Ram Vilas Paswan held significant portfolios in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet. The new central government was generous towards Bihar, and Union ministers from the state launched projects in Bihar too.
Yet, Kumar felt Bihar required something unique to shore up revenue collections. It is in this context that he decided to introduce the previous New Excise Policy of July 2007. The number of liquor shops increased several-fold in Bihar, but that was not all. A drinking culture spread to the rural hinterland. In a couple of years, a strong liquor mafia emerged. It includes people close to the ruling dispensation and allegedly enjoys the patronage of bureaucrats and police. The whopping rise in sales, manufacture and consumption of liquor led to a massive surge in domestic violence and crimes against women and girls. As most of these crimes were committed by drunken close relatives within homes, they were rarely reported to the police and the public never heard of the crisis.
The situation came to such a pass that on 9 July 2015, a large number of volunteers of women self-help groups, whom he was addressing in Patna, compelled Kumar to promise a liquor ban. Soon after he was re-elected—this time in alliance with the RJD and Congress party—he began working on a prohibition policy, which came into effect on 1 April 2016.
As Kumar’s government was responsible for the spread of alcohol use in the state, it was challenging to stop its manufacture, sale and consumption immediately. The biggest problem was dismantling the liquor mafia, which had grown very powerful and was allegedly close to NDA members. In the first ten years of his government, Kumar failed to bring significant investments into Bihar. But several foreign liquor and beer brands did set up plants in the state. Prominent British liquor baron Lord Karan Bilimoria was a prize attraction at the Global Bihar Summit held in February 2012 in Patna. Bilimoria said, “Had Mahatma Gandhi been here, I would have offered him Cobra non-alcoholic beer as refreshment.”
On 27 December 2021, almost a decade after that meeting, Kumar launched a social awareness campaign that sought to do precisely the opposite. Suddenly, he was thundering that he did not want anyone who wished to drink to enter Bihar. He said drinking would get anybody behind bars, no matter how mighty they are. Once again, Mahatma Gandhi was quoted at people, now favouring alcohol-free Bihar. Within hours of his warning, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said, “The liquor ban decision of the Nitish Kumar government in 2016 has left many cases pending in the courts. Even hearings for bail in simple cases take one year in the courts.
Applications pertaining to bails in liquor prohibition act are submitted in large numbers in the High Court. Short-sighted policies implemented by different governments are affecting the work of courts in the country. Every law needs to be discussed thoroughly and with solid points before implementation.” Ironically, Bihar still has a liquor problem, now in the form of spurious liquor, which has a much higher death toll in Bihar than in non-prohibition states. For example, about 100 people died in 2021, and the death toll in the first three months of 2022 has already crossed fifty.
Clearly, the state government is finding it very difficult to win this battle because the liquor mafia is powerful. Consider BJP Member of the Legislative Council ‘Tunna Ji’ Pandey, said to be in the liquor trade. Incensed by his repeated statements against the chief minister and the liquor ban, JD-U leaders sought immediate action against him. The BJP suspended him in January 2021, but he still attends party meetings and rubs shoulders with state office-bearers and ministers. Pandey is not alone. Other saffron party leaders are openly questioning Kumar’s administration on prohibition. BJP legislators were on the warpath in the state Assembly on 14 March over the prohibition issue. There was a spat between the Speaker, Vijay Kumar Sinha, who belongs to the BJP, and the Chief Minister. Hindustani Awam Morcha leader Jitan Ram Manjhi, a prominent Mahadalit figure whom Kumar had picked as chief minister in May 2014, has criticised prohibition several times. He has repeatedly brought attention to thousands of Dalits languishing in jails due to the alcohol ban, while the rich and powerful openly enjoyed alcohol and the police looked away.
A senior doctor in Patna sums up the whole prohibition story: “True, liquor is unavailable openly in functions, parties, bars, etc., but home delivery of wine or beer is possible at double or triple the price. The ban is good in one way—now I drink one or two privately at night. Earlier, I had to share a bottle with friends. It is cheaper now!” The bottom line is that nobody is talking about finding sources of revenue in Bihar any longer.
The author is a Patna-based freelance journalist. The views are personal