It is a morality play: Total prohibition is a step that needs to be welcomed in the land where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. But, at the same time, the state government also needs to come up with some creative measures for people living in rural areas so that they adopt it willingly and voluntarily. Roughly two per cent of the total population of the state is tribals. The Nitish Kumar government has imposed a ban on liquor in Bihar, completely ignoring the tribals for whom consumption of liquor is part of their culture. For example, during Sarhul festival, tribals living in different parts of Bihar and Jharkhand consume liquor as part of their ritual.
I as well as other social scientists believe that a complete ban on liquor never works. Kerala’s efforts to introduce prohibition is a clear example. The Kerala government imposed graded prohibition, arguing for a liquor-free state eventually. It did so by restricting the sale and consumption of liquor to five-star hotels. Yet it is unclear whether consumption of liquor was the reason for some of Kerala’s social problems or a symptom of a wider social breakdown brought about by change. On December 30, 2015, the apex court upheld the Kerala government’s decision, while contending that introducing prohibition was a different task. The court also observed how Kerala had in the past forayed into prohibition and found it “unimplementable”. In fact, governments and politicians from South India presented it like the new “myth of Sisyphus” where prohibition was introduced with much fanfare only to be quietly withdrawn once it started to impact state revenue.
Prohibition, in fact, has an electoral sensibility. Politicians, like eager scouts, make the promise only to abandon it later. Prohibition has become a governmental morality play. But the government cannot play populist games without revenue that the sale and consumption of alcohol provides. The general trend should be to move from prohibition to regulation as it may prove to be a more flexible game where piety and populism can play out their respective parts in parallel silos.
Data from surveys done by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies shows that Nitish Kumar’s political support base comprised largely of women. They were in the forefront of the protest against the consumption of alcohol as it is women who usually experience first-hand consequences, such as domestic violence. Therefore, Mr Kumar’s wish to consolidate this group is understandable. But there are problems of governance especially in the state not known for law and order control. There is also the danger that imposing prohibition will lead to a crime wave which consolidates itself around prohibition as it happened previously around mining. Prohibition then becomes a sham, especially as far as bootleggers are concerned.
The rhetoric of prohibition is clear. The silence is about how to moderate or minimise the consequences of alcoholism, and the requirements of revenue that are equally demanding. Civil society and state must start a new conversation to try and understand the impact of knee-jerk moralism on social life.
Prof. S. Narayan is an anthropologist and emeritus professor at the Institute of Social Studies, New Delhi
Liquor ban empowers women: Article 47 of the Constitution clearly says that the state shall “endeavour to bring about prohibition” of intoxicating drinks and drugs which are injurious to health. In spite of the views of Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bhimrao Ambedkar against alcohol consumption, which are echoed in the Consitution, the lack of intent towards prohibiting alcohol is a cause for concern. The state of Bihar, which is facing economic challenges, has, by prohibiting alcohol, carved a milestone of sorts.
Even though Bihar generated maximum revenue from liquor, chief minister Nitish Kumar’s government has taken the decision to ban liquor in the state. Liquor ban was earlier imposed in the year 1977-78 but it didn’t hold for lack of proper enforcement. But this time both circumstances and implementation have changed. Earlier, administrative orders were issued for ban of liquor without an eye on its social impact. However, under Mr Kumar the ban has been imposed considering it to be the need of the hour and as a result of a poll promise to those whose lives were most affected by liquor, i.e. women. This is a strong move and follows Mr Kumar’s earlier steps to strengthen women’s position in the state so that he could harness their support in implementing the liquor ban. Legislations centred around education for girls, providing scholarship, dresses and cycles as well as self-help groups, strengthen women’s position and promise a progressive future.
Under the same goal, women’s empowerment was assured through reservation of 50 per cent seats in panchayats. Since November 2005, under the guidance of Mr Kumar, Bihar has reformed itself to provide a voice to the marginalised and work for their empowerment. This leads to the obvious question as to why political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party have not come up with comprehensive welfare schemes that seek change in the ideological and moral sense. Unanimous approach against the evil of liquor consumption has been taken for the first time by identifying it as a link to the prosperity of the people.
Bihar, which is always perceived as state where “people don’t cast their vote, they vote their caste,” has engineered a caste-neutral constituency of women, providing them social security and empowerment through various schemes. Certainly, Mr Kumar’s decision will invite opposition from the liquor mafia, which will require tough regulation of the prohibition. All 243 MLAs of the Bihar Assembly, including the Speaker, chief minister and Leader of the Opposition, rose from their seats and vowed they will not consume alcohol, adding that they would also discourage others from doing so. This has prompted members of Janata Dal (United) to take a similar oath. Similar initiatives have also started picking pace in Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Jharkhand where women have urged political parties, both ruling and contesting, to include prohibition in their agenda.
It’s instances and decisions like these which highlight the persona of Mr Kumar not just as a political leader but as a social reformer. He is willing to take up arms against all those who are not motivated by social welfare but by spreading misrule and dividing the people.
Neeraj Kumar is a Bihar MLC and JD(U) spokesperson...