Patna: On 1 November, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar virtually taunted the five victims who had died in Muzaffarpur after consuming spurious country-made liquor. “Jab garbar cheej pijiyega, toh aap chale jaiyega (If you drink the wrong things, you will go),” he had said.
But after 36 more deaths in three districts and five days later, Nitish has sobered down as he has declared his intent to review the state’s Prohibition laws.
It was on 2 October, 2016, when the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act came into force. It was seen as Nitish Kumar’s attempt to woo women voters.
Five years on, he is facing severe criticism for bad implementation of the law as illegal liquor is freely available all across Bihar. Hooch tragedies in the past three days, including the death of an army jawan and three others in Samastipur, have forced the CM to promise a review of the law.
“We will hold a review meeting on the implementation of Prohibition laws after Chhath. I am talking to officials and action has been initiated. Raids are being conducted; if some people are manufacturing illegal country-made liquor, it is wrong and strict action will be initiated,” he said while speaking to journalists after the swearing-in function of two newly elected JDU MLAs Friday.
By evening of that day, Nitish held a high-level meeting on the issue.
The state government, however, is likely to tweak the rules, instead of quashing the law.
Excise and Prohibition Minister Sunil Kumar, a former IPS officer, told ThePrint that the law is here to stay. He added that since Prohibition was introduced in 2016, over four lakh litres of liquor has been seized, over 60,000 vehicles impounded for carrying liquor and over three lakh persons arrested for violating the law.
“When the laws were being framed, the present opposition supported it and it was passed unanimously. There is the CRPC and IPC for crime, and yet crime happens,” he said. “Similarly, there are persons violating the law. We take action and around 6,000 police and excise personnel have been dismissed since 2016 for connivance in illegal liquor trade. We are open to suggestions from the opposition for amendments. But the Prohibition laws are here to stay.”
Deaths kick off political storm
The spurious liquor deaths have, however, kicked off a political storm, with the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) claiming that they are tantamount to murder.
“There is a syndicate that deals in illegal liquor. It has the patronage of the government,” alleged RJD MP Manoj Jha, adding that the government has not responded to queries on why no action was initiated against BJP minister Ram Surat Rai when two truck-loads of liquor was recovered from a school run by him in Hajipur, earlier this year.
RJD national vice-president Shivanand Tiwari alleged that the law was only hurting the poor.
“Prohibition is a joke in Bihar. There is home delivery of liquor. Only the poor and downtrodden get arrested. No white collared person has been arrested,” Tiwari told ThePrint. “Nitish Kumar knows the officials and politicians in his party who consume liquor on a daily basis. A mafia has started a parallel business of illegal liquor which is estimated to be of the tune of Rs 10,000 crore. The hospitality sector of Bihar has crumbled. Nitish Kumar wants to make every citizen of Bihar a sadhu by force.”
Former chief secretary V.S. Dubey believes the government has a tough task on hand in tackling the illegal liquor menace.
“There are two ways of looking at Prohibition. One is that it is desirable for society from a health point of view. But second, it cannot be implemented because Bihar has a porous border with UP, West Bengal, Nepal and Jharkhand,” he said. “There are hundreds of roads leading to Bihar from which illegal liquor enters. You cannot guard all the entries. Even in making illegal liquor, a lot of groundwork has to be done to get the production started. It is unthinkable that the local police do not know about it. Obviously there is connivance. Hooch deaths and illegal liquor will continue and there is nothing the state government can do about it.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)