In April 2016, the NDA Government led by Nitish Kumar enforced the stringent prohibition law in Bihar to make it a dry State but spurious liquor has been claiming the lives of poor people. In 2021, till October 31, 90 people, mostly from the lower strata of society, died after consuming spurious liquor and Deepavali turned a nightmare for over two dozen families in Gopalganj and West Champaran districts. Unfazed, Mr. Kumar recently said, “Such incidents happen even where liquor is available”.
First major incident
When the prohibition law was enforced in 2016, 19 people died at Khajurbanni village in Gopalganj district in August by consuming spurious liquor. It was the first major incident at that time in dry Bihar. Officials rushed to Gopalganj and the local administration swung into action against those involved in illegal liquor trade. Five years after the incident, in March 2021, 13 accused were convicted in the case, with nine having been sentenced to death and four awarded life imprisonment. Deaths by spurious liquor continued, though in less numbers.
Ever since Bihar became a dry State 125 people have died, of whom 90 in 2021 alone, and several others lost eyesight. Districts from where such deaths were reported are: Gopalganj, West Champaran, Muzaffarpur, Nawada, Siwan, Vaishali, Kaimur, Begusarai and Rohtas. Most of these districts share their borders with Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Nepal where illegal liquor trade is thriving.
Lakhs of litres of illegal liquor were seized, hundreds of breweries were demolished and thousands were arrested but only few hundreds were convicted under the new prohibition law. This is blamed on the nexus between police, excise officials, local criminals and politicians. Their aim is to mint easy money by funnelling illegal bottles of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) from Haryana, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Nepal.
Several policemen were caught and suspended — some of them for selling seized liquor bottles even from police stations. The culprits employed innovative ways to smuggle liquor bottles — from inside gas cylinders to ambulances to fruit and grain baskets and pantry cars of trains. Several railway employees working in pantry cars were arrested for being involved in the illegal trade. The poor kept brewing country made liquor in remote areas.
Opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav has charged the Chief Minister with patronising police officials and Ministers who were “involved in the distribution of illegal liquor during the by-election held on October 30.”
“Ministers and police officials themselves distributed liquor during the bypoll on Nitish Kumar’s patronage. Where is prohibition? Who is responsible for such deaths? The kingpin of parallel black economy and smuggling to the tune of ₹20,000 crore must come forward to respond,” tweeted Mr. Yadav.
Senior RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari said, “Deaths due to consumption of spurious liquor have now turned into an epidemic of small nature. People are dying and the local administrations are involved in performing last rites of those died without post-mortem by putting pressure on victims’ family members so that no one knows the exact figure of the casualties. No one really knows how many more will die due to the obstinacy of Nitish Kumar.”
RJD chief Lalu Prasad said, “On the recent deaths of those consumed illegal liquor the Chief Minister will not say even two words of condolence as liquor mafias patronised by him will get upset.”
But Mr. Kumar said “such things happen even where liquor is available”. He has been reiterating that his Government will enforce prohibition laws “more stringently”.
‘Majority in favour’
“We introduced prohibition in the State since taking alcohol is a dirty thing. The ill-effects of liquor get multiplied when consumed in an adulterated form. I know that majority of people are in favour of ban on liquor in the State but only a handful of them violate the laws,” Mr. Kumar reiterated in public meetings and seminars.
But social commentators have a different view. “Nowhere in the world such stringent prohibition laws have become successful. The habit of liquor drinking can only be curbed but cannot be stopped through laws and in a poor State like Bihar it is dangerous to enforce laws to stop people from drinking liquor,” said retired professor of Patna University Nawal Kishore Choudhury.
Senior citizen and businessman Devendra Singh too agreed, “Today, illegal trade of liquor has become the most profitable business in the State and sadly, youths are falling prey to this.”
People across party lines confided to The Hindu that liquor flow continued during the recent by-election and the ongoing panchayat poll. “Incidents like Gopalganj and West Champaran are bound to happen in the coming days”, they said.