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Nitish Kumar is riding a tiger with prohibition in Bihar. Everyone knows it’s failed

Last week's hooch tragedy, which killed over 70, has again raised questions on implementation of prohibtiion law, with many blaming corruption in police & system for easy availability of liquor.

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Bihar: Huge posters advertising how prohibition has changed lives for the better line the streets of Bihar’s cities and towns. Most display photos of women claiming that they can leave their homes freely and without fear because of the liquor ban law. But for residents of Mashrak area, in the state’s Saran district, where over 70 people died after consuming spurious alcohol last week, the posters are a mockery of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s prohibition law.

As long as BJP had shared power with JD(U) in Bihar — till August this year — it had supported the prohibition, but now that it is in the opposition, it is raising questions on the law’s efficacy.

BJP Bihar general secretary Devesh Kumar told ThePrint that the party has not changed its view. “The BJP remains firm in its stand on supporting the prohibition policy. But the government of the day must implement the policy effectively and honestly,” he said.

A hoarding near the Patna high court, extol the virtues of the liquor ban | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
A hoarding near the Patna high court, extol the virtues of the liquor ban | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Not only are his political opponents tapping into the outrage and anger among his voters, but there is criticism from within his own party as well.

“The liquor ban in Bihar is a failure,” said Janta Dal (United) MLA Dr. Sanjeev Kumar, who represents the Parbatta seat in the Bihar assembly, calling for a review of the law.

While the MLA stopped short of directly blaming the Chief Minister, he accused the police of failing to enforce the prohibition.

“Without the help of the administration, how are big trucks carrying liquor entering the state? After this policy, crimes against Dalits are also on the rise. The government is following up, but the director general of police is lax,” he alleged.

Bihar DGP S.K. Singhal, however, said, “We take action against those who are found to be involved in corruption. Apart from this, it is also the responsibility of the family members and the people of the society to pay attention to this situation.”

Bihar excise minister Sunil Kumar did not deny allegations of systemic lapse, but added that the government was trying to address the issues.

“There could be black sheep in the system. I am not denying it,” he said. Police claim that they have arrested close to 60,000 people till July this year for allegedly violating the prohibition. But that has done little to stem the flow of alcohol into the state. Change has to come from within as well, argued the minister.

He added: “We have opened de-addiction centers in many districts. But for this issue, we are conducting a survey, after which better medical facilities can also be made available to the liquor addicts.”

Meanwhile, CM Nitish Kumar is riding a tiger in trying to make Bihar a dry state. He can neither dismount and abandon it without losing face nor guarantee strict enforcement.

Leela Devi (on the left) who came to visit her brother in Sadar Hospital, Chhapra | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Leela Devi (on the left) who came to visit her brother in Sadar Hospital, Chhapra | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Also read: ‘Where’s the ban? Men still get liquor illegally and die.’ Anger over Bihar hooch tragedy

‘Bootleggers use children to supply liquor’

What most people in the state agreed on is that liquor is freely available. Prohibition has just made alcohol more expensive in the state and allowed bootleggers to operate without any checks and balances.

“Both my brother and husband are still drinking. But what they used to get for Rs 50, they are now paying Rs.100 for, and getting sick. Neither the budget of the house, nor quality of life is improving,” said Leela Deevi, who had come to see her brother at Chhapra’s Sadar Hospital, when ThePrint caught up with her. Devi’s brother is among those being treated for alcohol poisoning at the hospital, following last week’s hooch tragedy.

The steady supply of liquor is guaranteed in two ways, people ThePrint spoke to, alleged. One was at the local level where people illegally brew it in kilns and the other was through porous borders, where checks were allegedly lax and corruption rampant. Alcohol entered Bihar in trucks and even via boats, claimed social workers and transport in the state.

At the local level — from Patna to Chhapra — bootleggers make home deliveries allegedly using children as couriers, claimed social workers. A social worker from Patna, who did not want to be named, alleged that school children were being pushed into this business.

Bihar Excise Minister Sunil Kumar | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Bihar Excise Minister Sunil Kumar | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Much like drug peddlers, suppliers demarcate their respective areas of operation, claimed people in the know. If a supplier moves into another person’s ‘territory’ fights erupt and people lose their lives. Ever since the policy of prohibition was implemented, both crime and the use of drugs have increased in Bihar, alleged politicians across parties.

“Nitish Kumar may have banned it, but there is no dearth of liquor for people in Bihar,” claimed Santosh Rai, a truck driver, while drinking tea at a local dhaba in Chhapra.

Last week’s hooch tragedy has laid bare the class divide in Bihar. The economically weaker sections of society depend on illegal bootleggers and buy cheap unregulated alcohol sold in sachets. Consumption of spurious liquor may lead to death. But the rich source branded alcohol from suppliers, many of whom are on their speed dial. In urban areas like Patna, people take orders over the phone and deliver liquor, said sources in the hospitality industry.

“Call on a number and the liquor is delivered. Almost every brand of liquor is available. But the one who delivers once does not come the second time. People drink while sitting in their rooms,” a hotel manager said on condition of anonymity.

Allegations of corruption

Residents and politicians blamed corruption within the rank and file of the police and the local administration for alcohol being so freely available.

“Police take money from the liquor mafia. Even children are smuggling liquor in school bags. This policy creates juvenile criminals. No application of mind has been used in the implementation of this policy,” alleged Devesh Kumar.

JD(U) MLAs, like Sanjeev Kumar, share his concern about the implementation of the liquor law. “Police extort money in the name of prohibition,” alleged Sanjeev Kumar.

Multiple sources including police officers, politicians and social workers that ThePrint spoke to blamed “corruption” for gaps in the implementation of the law.

“From senior officers to junior officers, everyone’s monthly income is tied to the illegal supply of alcohol. In the border areas, the station in-charge gets Rs 35-40 lakhs and the DSP gets around 1 crore,” alleged an MLA, on the condition of anonymity.

Devesh Kumar, general secretary, BJP Bihar unit | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Devesh Kumar, general secretary, BJP Bihar unit | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Police officers ThePrint spoke to said they didn’t have the wherewithal or manpower to keep tabs on all bootleggers. An arrest can often become a contentious issue, one that involved the villagers, they claimed.

“It is not easy to keep track of everyone. Even when we arrest someone, the whole community comes to the station. We get calls from political leaders to release them. The pressure is too much,” said a senior police officer, on condition of anonymity.

District Magistrate of Gopalganj Naval Kishore Chaudhary put the onus on people and accused them of lack of cooperation.

“People know that they should not drink alcohol, but still drink it. We have to try to make them more and more aware. That’s what we are doing. People know that it is wrong to cross the vehicle limit on the road but do it anyway,” he said, adding “We are trying our best”.

Poor policy implementation

Meanwhile, CM Nitish Kumar is under pressure to review the state’s liquor policy, not just from the Opposition, but from within his own party as well, with some claiming the law was implemented in haste.

“Conduct an internal vote. Not even 10 MLAs (would) vote in favour of Nitish Kumar,” said a JD(U) leader on condition of anonymity.

At the Bihar Assembly session Friday, Rajya Sabha member Sushil Kumar Modi said that the government has lost revenue to the tune of Rs 35,000 crores and about 1,000 people have died ever since prohibition was implemented in the state in 2016. He, too, called for a review of the policy.

Last year the Supreme Court also made comments on Bihar’s Liquor policy for the pressure it created on the judiciary.

The then Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana, had said that the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 was made with a lack of foresight. “Fourteen-fifteen judges of the Patna High Court were kept busy each day with bail hearings in liquor cases,’ he had said.

As a way forward, Devesh Kumar suggested the ban could be eased for non-domiciles the way it was done in Gujarat.

“In Gujarat, if you are not a resident, you can get liquor after completing some formalities. We can implement that here in Bihar. But Nitish is not even ready to review this seriously,” he claimed.

Many in the state alleged that hasty implementation of the law has also left tribal communities who used to brew toddy without a legal source of income.

While Nitish Kumar banned liquor, the CM did not give them any alternative opportunity for income, alleged a social worker in the state. He also pointed to the lack of on-ground support to wean away alcoholics.

“There are no rehabilitation centers in Bihar (for alcoholics). Where can one enroll if he wanted to get rid of alcohol addiction? This half-hearted policy and the protection of the administration and the mafia are also reasons for the policy failure,” alleged Lok Janshakti party member and MP, Chirag Paswan.

According to the figures of the Prohibition Department in the Bihar government, since the enforcement of liquor prohibition i.e. since April 1, 2016, more than six and a half lakh people have been arrested.

Questioning the nature of the arrests, Paswan said, “How many of them are smugglers, or is it just the poor who are in jail, while the big gangs are roaming free?”

(Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan)

Also Read: Nitish’s ‘if you drink, you’ll die’ remark & alcohol ban will endanger more lives, deepen crisis


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