Near a hut under Chitkohra railway overbridge in Patna, opposite to a BJP minister’s bungalow, an elderly man nods his head to an ‘invitation’ by a local. A woman takes him inside, where lies ‘dry’ Bihar’s biggest solution. The man gulps down a glass of Mahua (country liquor). He’s charged ₹50.
As the man leaves finishing his short drinking bout in broad daylight, the woman who runs it all, seemingly starts waiting for more customers on a chair. All these at a distance of just a road from the residence of a minister.
Such has been the truth of ‘dry’ Bihar, where liquor flows in abundance and tipplers could be found consuming it even near a minister’s official residence right in the state capital.
According to the woman who runs the liquor business, construction workers and other labourers are her regular customers who visit her hut everyday after sunset. Bribing the police is how she sustains the business, illegal in the state, she admitted, confessing it is the only way she earns her daily bread.
Other slum dwellers are also in cahoots with the police, selling liquor to earn their livelihood.
Even foreign liquor is easily available across Bihar. The only condition is that one should be ready to pay at least double the market price to quench one’s thirst. Home delivery is also guaranteed. Bootleggers are simply mocking at law enforcing agencies and making money in the process.
The Bihar government had imposed complete prohibition on liquor on April 5, 2016, in line with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s promise to ban liquor if he was voted to power in the 2015 assembly election, presumably to woo the women voters. A few months after coming to power and the formation of the NDA government in Bihar, he kept his words and imposed total prohibition.
Before Bihar, other places where prohibition had been imposed were Gujarat, Mizoram, Nagaland and Lakshadweep. Initially, Nitish enforced a five-year jail term even for first time offenders, but amended the rule in 2018 to introduce a fine for first-time offenders.
Nitish faced the first major embarrassment after the imposition of prohibition when the hooch tragedy struck Bihar in August, 2016, in which 16 people lost their lives due to spurious country liquor in Harkhua Khajurbani locality of Gopalganj town.
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Similarly, at least five men died after allegedly consuming spurious liquor in Danwar village of Rohtas district in October, 2017.
In the latest incident, two brick kiln workers from Jharkhand lost their lives in the early hours of February 17 this year due to a suspected hooch tragedy at Majhaulia village in Gopalganj district.
Social activist Dashrath Paswan said the implementation of prohibition in the state was not more than 35 per cent even as 40 per cent of the liquor being sold clandestinely is spurious. He said lakhs of poor people have been put behind bars on charge of violating prohibition.
“Politicians are demanding their release only to score some brownie points,” he said, and remarked that a lot more has to be done if the state government really intends to enforce complete prohibition.
Former chief minister and Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) chief Jitan Ram Manjhi last December demanded early release of the poor languishing in jails for over three months on charges of violating prohibition. HAM is an ally of the ruling NDA in Bihar.
Manjhi belongs to Mushahar caste and his castemen have been traditionally involved in liquor business. A huge number of them are behind the bars on charges of violating prohibition. According to last year`s figure, over 2.55 lakh people have been booked for violating prohibition in the state even as more than 40,000 prohibition-related bail petitions are stuck in Patna High Court. Several of them simply lack financial capability to fight their cases for getting bail and are simply languishing in jails.
Putting on a brave face amid criticism for poor prohibition implementation, Chief Minister Kumar has recently ordered “immediate dismissal” of police personnel, who will be caught drunk in the dry state. In another major move, big liquor mafias Pushpinder Singh Dhariwal alias Harry and Ajit Singh alias Jeeta alias Khalila were recently brought to Bihar by air from Punjab and Haryana. They face accusations of illegally supplying liquor to the state.
Women unhappy over poor implementation
Women are not that enthusiastic about prohibition any more as liquor is still being sold across the state.
Sharing her experience, Gayatri Kumari at Sonepur in Bihar`s Saran district, said, “Prohibition has deterred several men to drink liquor as it is now available at a much higher cost but many habitual boozers are still not ready to mend their ways.”
They are ready to pay extra bucks to buy liquor, creating serious financial hardships for their families, she rued.
Shobha, standing at a close distance, intervened and said the state government imposed prohibition without making alternative arrangements for those who were rendered jobless after it. She said small-time businesses associated with liquor sales have been finished.
Poor people, selling snacks, spicy mixture, and boiled eggs were immediately rendered jobless after the imposition of prohibition. She said that after a long struggle, they found alternative sources of income. The sale of liquor even after prohibition exposes chinks in the government’s machinery, she wryly remarked.
Other sources compensating revenue losses
Bihar was bound to lose upwards of ₹4,000 crore in revenue owing to prohibition, but the Nitish government went ahead with its plan.
Since 2017-18, the contribution of state excise duty to revenue has become zero following imposition of prohibition and now the government is mopping up additional revenue from other sources.
The state government has started concentrating on earning through tax mobilisation due to growth in the consumer market. Savings of common people is expected to have risen by ₹12,000-13,000 crore after complete prohibition, enabling them to spend on the consumer goods. The state government is taking advantage of it to replenish its coffer.
In 2020-21, Bihar is expected to generate ₹5,830 crore through the levy of sales tax (on items such as petroleum products), and VAT. Similarly, ₹4,700 crore is estimated to come from stamp duty and registration fees in 2020-21.
Domestic violence reduced after prohibition
In Bihar, cases of domestic violence under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (cruelty by the husband or his relatives) has fallen 37 per cent since the liquor ban, while the crime rate — or cases per 100,000 women — has fallen 45 per cent. Countrywide, during the same period, cases rose 12 per cent and the crime rate rose 3 per cent.
In another positive outcome, average weekly expenditure on food, education and health has increased by 32 per cent, 68 per cent and 31 per cent respectively after the liquor ban in the state.