Prohibition A Global Failure, Latest Hooch Deaths Must Make Bihar CM Nitish Kumar Review Liquor Ban
Bihar has been rocked by many deaths since prohibition came into effect on 2 October 2016.
In March this year, 15 people died and many more lost their eyesight in Nawada district after consuming hooch.
Nitish Kumar, who headed an alliance government that included the RJD and the Congress, maintains that both these parties were party to the decision to make Bihar a dry state. The deaths of more than 40 people over the past few days in Samastipur, West Champaran, Gopalganj, Siwan and Hajipur districts of Bihar after consuming hooch (illicit country liquor) has triggered a political slugfest and renewed demands to lift prohibition in the state.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been on the backfoot ever since he commented, in quite an uncharacteristic manner, that people will die if they consume illicit liquor.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) expectedly went on the offensive against Kumar for his insensitive remarks and alleged that the government was hand in glove with the liquor mafia.
Kumar has ordered a statewide crackdown on illicit manufacture and supply of liquor that has an estimated turnover of Rs 10,000 crore.
Kumar has also convened a meeting of top officials on November 16 to plug loopholes in the 2016 Bihar Prohibition & Excise Act and decide on stronger measures to crack down on manufacture, supply and sale of liquor in the state.
A strategy for a massive awareness campaign to educate people about the ill-effects of liquor consumption will be finalised at the meeting.
However, said Bihar's Excise & Prohibition Minister Sunil Kumar (a former IPS officer), prohibition will remain. "The provisions of the prohibition law will be examined and deficiencies which facilitate manufacture and smuggling of liquor will be plugged," said the minister.
Bihar has been rocked by many deaths since prohibition came into effect on October 2, 2016. In March this year, 15 people died and many more lost their eyesight in Nawada district after consuming hooch.
The illicit country liquor claimed nine lives in Begusarai and Sasaram districts on Holi this year.
The imposition of prohibition in 2016 was swiftly followed by deaths of 19 (who consumed illegally brewed country liquor) in Gopalganj district. Nineteen persons responsible for that tragedy have recently been sentenced to death.
But, alleges the RJD and even some BJP leaders, most deaths due to consumption of illicit hooch go unreported. "The casualties are mostly low and the authorities ascribe those deaths to other ailments or even road accidents," alleged RJD spokesperson Mritunjay Tiwari.
RJD national vice-president Shivanand Tiwari said: "Prohibition is a joke. There is home delivery of liquor in Bihar. Only the poor get arrested whereas the heads of the liquor mafia who have links with the state machinery and ruling politicians are not touched. Nitish Kumar knows all his officers and party colleagues who consume liquor. The liquor mafia is thriving all over the state".
RJD MP Manoj Jha said that prohibition has been a "total failure" in Bihar. He is not wrong. Liquor is freely available, and smuggled in from the neighbouring states of Bengal, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, and also Nepal.
"It is impossible to stop smugglers from bringing in liquor from the neighbouring states and also Nepal. The borders are totally porous. Prohibition has only benefited the liquor mafia and resulted in enormous loss of revenue for the state," said a BJP MP who did not want to be named.
He added that since IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor) smuggled in from other states is expensive and country liquor cannot be manufactured legally in Bihar anymore, a huge number of people rely on illicit country liquor which is often harmful, and lethal. "That's why so many people die so routinely after consuming hooch," he said.
RJD's Shivanand Tiwari said that bootlegging is rampant and while the state is losing a lot of revenue, the liquor mafia is flourishing. "There is no way that illegal liquor manufacturing units can operate in the state without the complicity of the police, local authorities and ruling party politicians," he said.
Nitish Kumar, of course, dismisses all this criticism. "Prohibition has resulted in a stark decrease in domestic violence. It has brought about social harmony and happiness. Women folk are very happy," he contended.
In fact, Nitish Kumar's move (prohibition) had won him the support of women and paid rich political dividends. Women folk, especially in the rural areas and belonging to the poor and socially and economically backward sections, became his staunch supporters.
But the rising number of hooch deaths and widespread availability of illicit or smuggled liquor has dented this support base. Critics of prohibition contend that domestic violence and atrocities on women stem from a sense of patriarchy and male chauvinism.
"These are social evils that are best tackled through education and social awareness," said sociologist Prashant Mishra who teaches at Patna University.
Over the last five years since the imposition of prohibition in Bihar, 97 lakh litres of IMFL and 53 lakh litres of country liquor have been seized, 3.46 lakh people arrested, 186 excise and police personnel dismissed from service for their involvement in liquor smuggling and illegal manufacture of liquor, disciplinary action taken against 60 station house officers, 60,000 vehicles impounded and property worth crores sealed and seized.
These statistics, says RJD's Shivanand Tiwari, prove that prohibition has been a complete failure in Bihar. For every litre of liquor seized, at least 20 litres are not and reach consumers.
The courts are clogged with liquor related cases: 25 per cent of cases pending in the lower courts and 20 per cent in the Patna High Court relate to liquor manufacture, smuggling and sale.
In 2019, alarmed by such high pendency of liquor related cases, the Patna High Court asked the Bihar government to set up special courts. Though over six dozen such special courts have been set up now, progress in disposing of cases has been very slow.
Bihar, say BJP leaders, is not only losing huge revenue due to prohibition, but is also spending huge sums of money to stop illegal manufacture of liquor and smuggling and sale of liquor.
"All that money could have been better utilised on welfare measures," said the BJP MP.
He pointed out that prohibition has not succeeded anywhere in the world. "Even the USA had to roll back prohibition after realising that it is counter-productive," he said.
Bihar BJP president and Lok Sabha MP Sanjay Jaiswal agreed with his colleague and the RJD. "The ban on liquor needs to be reviewed right now. Prohibition has been a complete failure," he said.
In fact, prohibition has not worked in other states where it had been imposed. At present, liquor ban exists in Gujarat and the Northeastern states of Mizoram, Nagaland and the Imphal Valley of Manipur.
But bootlegging is rampant in these states and liquor is freely available at a premium. While these states lose a lot of revenue, the liquor mafia rakes in the moolah. Politicians, police and excise staff are involved in liquor smuggling in these states.
That's why prohibition had been lifted in some states where it had been imposed. N.T.Rama Rao imposed prohibition in Andhra Pradesh in 1994, but his son-in-law N. Chandrababu Naidu lifted it in 1997 because it was not successful and feasible.
Prohibition was imposed in Haryana in July 1996 but lifted in April 1998 because it failed to stop consumption of alcohol. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government imposed prohibition in Kerala in 2014 but the Left Front junked it when it came to power in 2017.
Prohibition was lifted from Lakshwadeep by the BJP-appointed lieutenant governor Praful Khoda Patel recently.
The Congress government in Manipur lifted prohibition from the Christian-majority hill districts of Manipur in 2002. The Hindu majority districts of Imphal Valley continue to be 'dry'.
Prohibition was imposed in Tamil Nadu in 1952, and the DMK government led by Karunanidhi lifted it partially to allow sale of arrack and toddy in August 1971. The AIADMK government of M.G.Ramachandran lifted it totally in 1983.
Given the experiences of these states, and the fact that prohibition only benefits the liquor mafia and leads to a parallel black economy, it is high time Nitish Kumar reviews the liquor ban.
For now, though, he appears to be rigid on not undertaking any such review. The Bihar Chief Minister says that the RJD, which has been criticising him strongly for the liquor ban, was party to the decision on 2016 when it was part of his government. Hence, he maintains, it has no moral right to criticise prohibition.
But Nitish Kumar is missing a vital point: that a wise administrator needs to move with the times and review decisions and policies which may not be working or have turned out to be counter-productive.
In Bihar, as in everywhere else, prohibition has turned out to be a failure: not only has the law failed to stop consumption of liquor, it has also led to the development of a parallel black economy.
Nitish Kumar needs to take a hard look at ground realities instead of being rigid and dogmatic.
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