In an embarrassing U-turn, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar abandoned his obstinacy on offering ex gratia relief to victims of many hoonch tragedies in his state.
Kumar announced on Monday (17 April) that the next of kin of those who die after consuming illicit liquor (hoonch) in Bihar will get compensation of Rs 4 lakh.
This is a complete reversal of his earlier policy of not offering any compensation to the families of victims of hoonch tragedies. He had been steadfast in his stance that “those who consume liquor deserve to die”.
Kumar had, in 2016, imposed prohibition on Bihar and laid down stiff punishment for those found drinking, possessing, buying, transporting or smuggling in liquor.
But the policy has been a failure since it has spawned a thriving black market in Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and also expensive blended or imported liquor from the neighbouring states of Bengal, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.
Rampant bootlegging has also generated huge amounts of black money and a parallel economy that finances many crimes. Smuggling in liquor from the neighbouring states is one of the biggest revenue generators for Bihar’s powerful crime lords.
The state government has also had to expend huge resources to enforce prohibition. And cases filed against people violating prohibition have clogged the courts, prompting even the Supreme Court to ask the state government to set up special courts to try such cases.
Also, the poor have been the main victims of prohibition. The stringent provisions of Bihar’s liquor ban law involve jailing persons found to even possess liquor and confiscation of properties of violators of the law.
And since the poor cannot afford the high blackmarket prices of even lowly-priced brands of IMFL smuggled in from the three neighbouring states, they consume illicitly-brewed liquor, which is often lethal.
Since 2016, hundreds have died in the state after consumption of hoonch. Since November 2021, according to official figures, more than 150 persons have died after consuming illicit country liquor. But the unofficial toll is said to be at least 400.
Bihar routinely suppresses such deaths and passes them off as deaths due to other reasons like liver ailments or heart attacks.
All parties, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress, have repeatedly urged Kumar to scrap the liquor ban and also compensate victims of hoonch tragedies. The RJD, when it was in the Opposition, had taken this up forcefully many times in the state Assembly.
The BJP, while it was part of the Nitish Kumar-led dispensation, had also repeatedly requested the chief minister to roll back prohibition since it was affecting the poor and also because the policy had been a failure.
But Kumar, who can be quite headstrong and obstinate, had refused to heed all their pleas. He told the state assembly in December last year: “Those who drink and die deserve no sympathy and no compensation. Giving any compensation will go against the spirit of the prohibition law. Those who drink liquor will die.”
The opposition BJP had lambasted the Chief Minister for his insensitive comment. Even the Congress, CPI and CPI(ML), which are constituents of the ruling mahagathbandhan, had criticised Nitish Kumar for his heartless comments.
RJD leaders started asking Nitish Kumar in private, to have a relook at the liquor ban policy and climb down from his adamant stand against providing compensation to families of victims of hoonch tragedies.
But Kumar had told RJD leaders at that time that prohibition is an issue close to his heart and has saved countless families from economic ruin. The liquor ban has spared lakhs of women the abuse they used to routinely face from their drunken husbands and made their lives better.
The Chief Minister had argued that prohibition has won over lakhs of women, especially in the rural areas and urban slums, and they have become his die-hard supporters. He pointed out that any roll-back would alienate these womenfolk, who form a large support base of the Janata Dal (United).
But the latest hoonch tragedy in East Champaran district that has claimed 26 lives so far, led the RJD to put its food down and tell Kumar that he will have to change his policy on not providing ex gratia relief to families of victims.
A senior RJD MLA who is close to party patriarch Lalu Yadav told Swarajya that Nitish Kumar was told very clearly that he would have to announce a sizable compensation. The RJD would not take ‘no’ for an answer this time.
Kumar, who had no option but to heed the RJD’s wishes, ultimately agreed. But to add to his embarrassment, the RJD asked Nitish Kumar to announce the compensation policy with retrospective effect.
Nitish Kumar tried to resist and said that retrospective compensation would tarnish his image and standing. But the RJD would have none of it and insisted that the compensation would have to cover past victims of such tragedies.
Ultimately, Kumar announced on Monday (17 April) that the next-of-kin of all those who died in hoonch tragedies since 2016 will be provided a compensation of Rs 4 lakh each.
The RJD, however, acceded to Kumar’s pleas for a face-saver that came in the form of two inconsequential riders. Kumar said that all those who seek this compensation have to provide details like the name and address of the person from whom the hoonch was purchased by the victim.
All the compensation seekers would also have to provide an undertaking not to consume liquor and that they support the government’s prohibition policy.
“The name and address of the person from where he had taken the liquor will have to be given. Along with this, they will also have to write that prohibition is a very good thing, we support this and no one in the family will drink alcohol in future,” Kumar announced.
But these riders are asinine and even funny.
“These declarations are completely farcical. Most of those who seek compensation will plead that they do not know the names of the people their dead kin bought hoonch from. And no court will uphold such a rider that denies compensation on the ground that the seeker does not know the name and address of the person who the dead kin bought liquor from,” said BJP Bihar state president Samrat Choudhury.
Choudhury also mocked the other rider about compensation-seekers declaring that they support prohibition.
“Nitish Kumar can frame those declarations and display them at his home, and then claim that people of Bihar support prohibition. That rider is just a face-saver for him. His obstinacy has been demolished by the RJD, and the conditions he has imposed are just his face-savers,” said Choudhury.
Other BJP leaders said that Nitish Kumar had always refused to revisit his prohibition policy when the BJP had demanded it, while it was part of the government.
“He (Kumar) had steadfastly refused to entertain our pleas and had even said no compensation would ever be provided. It is amusing to see how he has changed his stance now. The RJD has arm-twisted him and he deserves such rough treatment. His ego has been shattered and he has lost face badly,” said a senior BJP leader who was a cabinet minister in the seventh Nitish Kumar ministry.
Incidentally, the RJD is not insisting on rolling back prohibition. That’s because all the crime lords who control the liquor smuggling or bootlegging business have close links with the RJD.
The RJD is well-known for its patronage of various criminal gangs and for its close ties with mafia gangs. These crime lords allegedly offer crucial support to the RJD during elections and help Lalu Yadav’s party win from various parts of the state.
The RJD, therefore, is not too keen on rolling back prohibition. Had that been the case, it would have forced Nitish Kumar to do its bidding. Nitish Kumar, who has no option now to follow the RJD’s diktats, would have had to bow to the RJD’s wishes.
But the RJD only appears to want good compensation for the families of victims of hoonch tragedies. That way, it can claim that it was at the RJD’s insistence that the families of the victims are getting handsome compensation.
This is only the start of Nitish Kumar’s capitulation to the RJD. The coming months, says the BJP, will see more such instances that will be humiliating for Nitish Kumar.
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