About 12,000 people are in prison in Bihar for violation of the new prohibition law. Broadly, they have been taken into custody over the past three months. The law is extremely stringent, much more so than prohibition provisions that are in existence or have been in existence in other states. An accused cannot get bail without a long judicial process that assesses the circumstances of arrest and the evidence.
As per the prohibition law, the police is authorised to search kitchens and come to the conclusion that alcoholic or intoxicating drinks are being produced domestically if it finds certain ingredients — sugar, jaggery and grapes — being used in a particular fashion. The scope for misuse and extortion can be imagined. Landlords have been asked to compulsorily report tenants who drink in the privacy of their rooms. Otherwise, both the tenant and landlord are liable to be arrested.
Punishment under the law can extend to not just the person found drinking but also his family and members of his community, neighbourhood or village. Collective fines and presumption of guilt of family members in case an individual is found drinking is a feature of the Nitish Kumar government’s prohibition regime. Collective punishments on a significant scale were last heard of in Bihar (and certain other provinces) in 1942, during the Quit India Movement. Using a draconian wartime ordinance, the colonial government punished entire villages to defeat the revolutionary spirit.
Not that harsh laws have stopped people from drinking. In Gopalganj district this past week, some 20 people died after consuming sub-standard and illicitly produced alcohol. Without the prohibition law, the men who died would have had access to country-made liquor made in safe conditions or Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) from a regular store. They would have survived and their families would not have been left wondering if the prohibition law was worth it.
The state government was initially in denial about Gopalganj and sought to explain it away as food poisoning. Similar explanations have been offered for post-prohibition deaths in Khagaria, Nalanda and even Patna. Now the government has conceded that illicit liquor was responsible for deaths in Gopalganj, a district where 300 people are in prison on charges of violating prohibition.
Ironically, the JD(U)-RJD government has announced compensation for the families of those who broke the prohibition law, consumed illicit (but poor quality) alcohol and died in Gopalganj. This seems a ghoulish “incentive” — if that word is appropriate here in the first place. After all, those who drink legally-produced alcohol — procured now from other states or even made at home, as happens in some communities — are being fined and locked up.
How did Bihar’s prohibition binge begin? Prohibition has failed wherever it has been tried.
From 1920s America to 1990s Andhra Pradesh and Haryana, in the old Bombay state and in the successor province of Gujarat — where prohibition continues to exist, though it has been progressively diluted — a ban on alcohol production and consumption has only incubated smuggling and bootlegging syndicates, promoted organised crime and given local police officials opportunities to take bribes.
Encouraged by rural women voters who wanted curbs on their husbands’ drinking — and immoderate drinking is indeed and undeniably a social problem in many parts of India —
Mr Kumar promised a ban on country-made liquor which came into effect on April 1, 2016. On that day, long queues, running into two or three km, formed outside IMFL shops. Since country-made liquor shops had closed, consumers moved to branded alcohol. The ban was reduced to a fiasco.
Embarrassed, the state government hit back. In a matter of hours, all alcohol was banned. Big companies such as Cobra, United Breweries and Carlsberg, which had invested in Bihar following invitations by the Nitish Kumar government and facilitation by its industrial development agencies were surprised. There was no consultation or warning, before the ban.
The companies are fuming, as are brewery workers and distributors who have made investments and employed people.
Mr Kumar is accused of hypocrisy. As Satyajit Singh, a leading Patna businessman and chair, Bihar Committee, PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, pointed out during a recent public debate, “The Nitish Kumar government opened liquor shops in 8,000 panchayats and made people drink for 10 years to help check spurious liquor. It generated an estimated `30,000 crore in revenue and the growth story of Bihar was scripted.”
What is Mr Kumar’s motivation for prohibition — a measure he now advocates for all of the country and one that could form part of his national political plans? In Bihar, the JD(U) is smaller and less organised than its alliance partner, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD. The prohibition policy and creating a populist, and women’s, constituency is seen as Mr Kumar’s quest for a security blanket.
He is quite unhappy, especially since he has supporters and contributors who are in the alcohol business. Lip service to prohibition has forced him to keep his objections to himself.
The third partner in the ruling alliance, the Congress, has also maintained a tactical silence. Nevertheless, if Gopalganj-type tragedies recur, the noise levels will rise. So will pressure on Mr Kumar to reverse his absurd law....