• Shujat Ali Shahid

The 'Dry' Bihar

When Nitish Kumar returned to power in Bihar after the 2016 assembly polls, he took the step to introduce liquor prohibition in the state, banning the sale and consumption of liquor. However, this has miserably failed to put a dent in the problem of alcoholism and consumption of spurious liquor, which has been leading to so many deaths. In the new year, 11 people have died in such cases only in the Nalanda district so far.


Prohibition in Bihar

As mentioned earlier, liquor has been banned in Bihar since 2016 but the implementation of the law has been rusty. This implication is rooted in the fact that more than 15.5% of all adult males in Bihar consume alcohol regularly. All this comes at a time when more than 3.5 lakh cases have already been registered and around 4 lakh people have been arrested under the existing act. The situation, as it seems, does not get better.


In the beginning, the introduction of prohibition had led to more money being spent on necessities like food, clothing, etc. Moreover, the rural women of Bihar especially welcomed the move, hoping that it would rekindle a better overall development of their villages respectively. However, this had another major implication that is haunting present-day Bihar - the bootlegger economy, about which we will discuss a little later.


Prevalence of Bootleggers in Bihar

In the wider spectrum, a bootlegger is a person who produces, redistributes or deals in something illegal. Here, it alludes to the illegal sale of liquor. Bihar police have often faced the problem of containing their bootlegging economy, and at the same time, many of its officers have indulged in promoting such activities for their personal gains.


Over the years, bootleggers of neighbouring states like UP, West Bengal and Jharkhand and the border country of Nepal have been in cahoots with the ones in Bihar. Obviously, such movement of illegal liquor becomes impossible due to cross-country inspection but quite often, officers too are involved in it.


For instance, some of them buy liquor in the Palwa district of UP then return to Arrah in Bihar via Koilwar Bridge. Though the possibility of getting caught from this specific route is less, the sheer audacity to take on the high-risk high-reward challenge shows the desperate reality of 'dry' Bihar. Some even take the water route - At Gangaghar in Chhapra, boys tie the liquor bottles around their waist and swim all the way to their villages. When trucks of spurious liquor are caught, cops often maintain hold over one truck while letting others go. This strategy is 'rewarded' with personal stacks and a share of profits.


Government Response

Apart from the countless cases registered, the Bihar government has now introduced drone vigilance. Drones are to be used to monitor the illegal production and sale of liquor. This is bound to help in the tracking but the extent to which this problem has outstretched is difficult to contain. Already due to the enormous number of arrests under the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, the jails in Bihar have been dangerously clogged. Patna High Court has announced the appointment of judicial officers to tackle the huge number of cases registered under the same law.


State Excise Commissioner BK Dhanji said that in 2021,

  • 11,488 raids were conducted against the illegal liquor trade

  • 85,425 litres of liquor and 316 vehicles were seized


At the forefront, Nitish Kumar has again exhorted that no one in Bihar will be allowed to drink liquor. He has also come out and blamed the deaths on the ignorance of the people who consumed spurious liquor. So much so that they challenged the grant of bails to the accused under the act. This, however, was dismissed by the Supreme Court owing to the massive clogging of state jails and the fact that around 15 Patna High Court judges were dealing only with such cases. Popular opinion suggests that these Hooch tragedies are the result of the unregulated sale of the same on the black market, thus leaving illicit liquor as the only substitute.


Shades of Opinion

In November 2021 the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC) said,

“Bihar is paying a heavy price for its prohibition policy because of availability of spurious liquor, hooch deaths, a rise of liquor mafias and huge loss of government revenues”. It also said that stringent prohibition laws in Bihar seriously put the private sector in jeopardy.

As reported by The Hindu, CIABC also said

“In the last five years of prohibition Bihar government incurred loss of possible ₹30-35,000 crore revenue. It was because of revenue crunch that Bihar’s position in the development index in comparison to other States has been far behind”.

State Chief of BJP Sanjay Jaiswal went all out and questioned the implementation of the law while admitting that the intentions of the government were pure. He also hinted at the consensus between the police and liquor traders. This led to a minor fracas, owing to the fact that BJP is a coalition partner of Nitish Kumar's JD(U).


“Such incidents are abated by unsocial elements, who are utterly disappointed by the liquor law. So far as the state BJP chief’s assertion is concerned, I hope that leaders of the alliance partner must abide by the coalition dharma and help the government enforce the law with full firmness. " said Rajiv Ranjan, JD(U) spokesperson. Opposition leaders opine that the government should act more on the social awareness front instead of acting under the stringent act.


The Road Ahead


Amid all the criticism, the state government has finally given in to relax the law. Among the suggestions, some are:

  • A person who is caught for the first time may be let off with a fine.

  • The above clause does not apply to repeat offenders, who will be punished and fined both.

  • A vehicle seized for liquor violation may be let off after a fine.

These are bound to be incorporated in the February session of the Bihar legislative assembly. The stand of the government regarding the cause of ineffective implementation has been the same, suggesting a nexus between the law enforcement department and liquor hoarders and smugglers.


Conclusion

The proposed changes will be tabled during the Assembly's February session, which is bound to become a talking point in 'dry' Bihar and all over the country. But the Hooch deaths in the state have to be dealt with by an iron hand so that along with proper implementation of prohibition, these lives are not merely dismissed as collateral or as the downside of the anti-liquor laws.

 

~ Shujat Ali Shahid


Sources: NDTV, The Print, The Hindu, The Wire