Political equations in Bihar do not quite add up to the utopian Prohibition law that the Nitish Government has set out to implement. Add to this the powerful dons of the Eastern State whose lot cannot just be wished away; and then Bihar cops are not exactly known for their integrity. With these factors, Pinak Chaudhary questions whether the Chief Minister can stay true to his promise of making Bihar a Dry State and more importantly does his Government have the necessary apparatus in place to dissuade bootleggers
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has fulfilled one of his election promises by banning liquor in the State but the way it was enforced has left most wall-eyed. It is still a mystery why Nitish Kumar was in a hurry to declare total prohibition of liquor in Bihar at one go. Political circles are rife with speculations about what could have transpired during the Chief Minister’s abrupt meeting with his alliance partner RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav. But none seems to know for sure. Yadavs of Bihar hold sway over the alcohol trade in the State.
Nitish Kumar had promised to ban country made liquor in July last year itself bowing to the constant campaign by womenfolk. In November 2015 he had declared that Bihar will go for phase wise liquor prohibition, but then came the shocker and nobody saw it coming. The tipplers’ nightmare that was to unfold in over six months occurred exactly within five days.
While this bold step is winning praise for Nitish Kumar, his critics blame him for alcohol consumption going out of hand in Bihar. “Lalu Yadav can be blamed for many ills in Bihar, but (addiction to) drinking is not one of them. It was Nitish Kumar’s policy in 2006 to open licensed liquor shops in every Panchayat, and in some areas every village, and that made drinking a pastime for old and young alike. The State revenue soared, but a large mass of the population turned out to be alcoholics,” said a political insider. In 2004-05, the State excise revenue was barely Rs 350 crore. Nitish’s ‘take-liquor-to-the-villages’ policy fetched ten times more. The Excise Department’s income accelerated to over Rs.4,000 crore.
Critics say now that Nitish Kumar is flush with money with revenue from alcohol sale (as all State Governments are, with the new devolution policy devised by the Finance Commission the states are getting a larger share of the national income), he wants to undo the damage he has caused in the last decade.
The sale and consumption of any type of alcohol, including Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) - not just country liquor – has been completely banned in Bihar from April 5 with provisions of harsh punishment.
The decision on the ban on any type of alcohol was taken four days after the ban began on the production and sale of country liquor, or desi liquor from April 1. And Bihar entered its name in the list of Dry States.
The Bihar Government received revenue of nearly Rs 2000 crores from the sale of IMFL and revenue of around Rs 4000 crores from country made/spiced liquor sales in 2015-16.
Legislatures, bureaucrats including the Police Department and lawyers have been put under oath to abstain from consumption of alcohol in their life time. The oath is binding not just in Bihar; all were put under oath never to consume alcohol even outside Bihar. Abstinence from alcohol is not merely a legal issue in Bihar now, it has also become a moral obligation!
“But the more vital question is what will happen to the judges, politicians, top civilian and police officers for whom drinking is a daily part of life? Will they resign themselves to a dreary life sans alcohol? Or will they carve out a separate world of their own, shielded from public scrutiny?” says Delhi-based senior journalist Nalini Ranjan Mohanty.
The abrupt Prohibition has irked many who feel that the abrupt ban shows the ‘whimsical’ and ‘monarchical’ attitude of the government. “We do not want to be held hostage to the tyranny of political correctness”, retorted Munna K Jha, a communication consultant.
The police control room to enforce Prohibition, which has been operational since April 1 had registered 148 complaints till April 6. Police have taken action in 121 cases out of the 148 complaints registered through helpline numbers regarding sale, manufacturing or consumption of liquor. Police have seized nearly 5,000 litres of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) within 24 hours since the implementation of total prohibition in the State.
Many in Bihar though feel bootleggers will thrive and soon bottles would be home-delivered for a higher price. Supporters of CM Nitish Kumar say that Bihar is not Gujarat. Their leader, ably assisted by State Chief Secretary Anjani K Singh’s crack team, would make Bihar a landmark example of a success story for prohibition.
Unconvinced by the efficiency of administration, skeptics point to the failure in enforcing ban on tobacco products. Gutka or chewing tobacco is officially banned in the State. Recently Patna has been declared a smoke-free city officially. But both gutka and cigarettes are being sold openly in the heart of Patna under the very nose of local administration. “Why has Nitish Kumar’s ‘efficient’ team not been able to enforce this Government ban both on gutka and cigarette?” skeptics question.
But the former Director of Patna’s prestigious AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies (ANSISS) DM Diwakar says “complete ban on liquor in Bihar is a bold and welcome step of this Government. It manifests strong political will and resolve of this Government which has received overwhelming response from people across all sections of the society in general and women in particular”.
“To begin with, Police responses to complaints by conducting raids and demonstrations by civil society organisations are expressions of people's resolve. Ensuing election of Panchayati Raj in the State will be the litmus test”, Diwakar said but hurriedly added that the challenges posed by liquor traders and criminals in connivance with politicians and bureaucracy are enormous.
Undoubtedly, the conscious middle class will have to play a key role towards creating an effective environment for the success of Prohibition, Diwakar feels.
With the banning of all types of liquor, travel agents and hoteliers are apprehensive about the dip in flow of tourists in the days to come. Unlike Gujarat, the Bihar State Government will not issue any permit for liquor quota for foreign visitors.
But tourists aside, a more immediate worry is nagging the hundreds of bartenders in Bihar, who now stare at unemployment. Most of them plan to move base to the neighbouring states of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam for livelihood while others say they would now have to work as waiters. A number of bar-owners have also been left fuming over the imposition of Prohibition.
“It is good that the Government will refund the licence renewal fee but what will happen to our liquor stock which we had bought in bulk for the next four months, the proprietor of a bar in Patna questioned. “We were told that the Government will put a ban only on country made/spiced liquor but after four days, the Government forced us to down shutters without warning.”
The side effect of Prohibition as has been witnessed often is rise in drug addiction. And that fear looms large over Bihar. Marijuana and cough syrup are the most easily available alternatives for alcoholics. Recently the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) seized a huge consignment of cough syrup vials in Rohtas district. It was to be transported to different parts of the State in the wake of liquor ban. Following the raid, 60 kilogram of ganja was seized from two vehicles coming from Chhattisgarh while heroin was also seized from near Gandhi Maidan. If the Special Task Force (STF) personnel are to be believed, they have inputs that a huge amount of marijuana and heroin have been smuggled into the State from Nepal and Assam to fill the gap that alcohol ban has created.
"The medicines which are prescribed for anti-withdrawal symptoms are psychotropic and manufactured legally by multinationals. But, we have constituted special teams to keep a close watch on the misuse of such medicines as well as the import of ganja and cough syrups. We can say the actual demand and supply ratio will be clear only after 20 days from the date of implementation of total prohibition," said Vikash Kumar, SP, Patna bureau of NCB.
Many people believe that imposition of Prohibition will breed corruption and defeat the noble intentions that the Government of the day may have. Police are Bihar is neither a powerful force nor known for integrity. Bihar is also known for local mafia who rule the roost in many parts of the State and they are expected to exploit the situation and take to bootlegging. Has Nitish Kumar taken all that into account as he sets forth with the daring venture?