Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has scheduled a high-level meeting on the state’s liquor ban on November 16. This comes after at least 32 people died as a result of consuming spurious alcohol. A total of 15 people died in Bettiah, 13 in Gopalganj, and four in Samastipur.
The CM had reportedly mocked the five victims who died in Muzaffarpur after consuming spurious country-made liquor on November 1. He said, “Jab garbar cheej pijiyega, toh aap chale jaiyega (If you drink the wrong stuff, you will die).”
However, following a surge in the number of deaths in three areas, Nitish announced that the government would examine the state’s prohibition legislation.
What is the law against illicit liquor?
During the 2015 legislative assembly elections in Bihar, women and social activists staged enormous protests calling for the prohibition of all sorts of alcohol in the state.
Nitish Kumar noted in his election speeches that alcoholism frequently leads to family difficulties, including domestic violence, which has an impact on children’s schooling. Kumar declared prohibition in the state after sweeping the elections and assuming his third consecutive term as chief minister.
The state has previously prohibited country-made booze since April 1, 2016, but the Bihar administration chose to execute the second phase ahead of schedule, leading to the entire prohibition of country-made liquor. And finally on October 2, 2016, the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act came into force.
Moreover, de-addiction centres were also established in all 38 districts in order to reform all addicts.
However, despite the ban, rising deaths in Bihar due to illicit liquor consumption has been a matter of concern for the state government.
From January to October this year, around 70 people died and many others lost their eyesight after allegedly consuming spurious liquor in Nawada, West Champaran, Muzaffarpur, Siwan and Rohtas districts.
Why did it fail earlier?
It wasn’t the first time Bihar tried to outright prohibit the sale of alcohol in the state. It has had an experience of going completely ‘dry’ before as well. The prohibition was announced in March 1979, during the tenure of Karpoori Thakur, but it was reversed by Ram Sundar Das in the face of growing corruption and bootlegging.
Not the only state
After Gujarat, Nagaland, and Mizoram, Bihar is the fourth state to declare itself dry. Gujarat has been a dry state for almost five decades, and Kerala is following suit, phasing in the prohibition and allowing only five-star businesses to have bars.
The numbers, on the other hand, tell a different tale. According to the NFHS-5 survey, 15.5 percent of all men in Bihar (i.e., those above the age of 15) consume alcohol. Liquor consumption in rural Bihar is higher than in urban Bihar. In the NFHS-5, 15.8% of persons in rural Bihar consumed alcohol, compared to 14 percent in urban areas.
In Maharashtra, where there is no restriction, 13.9 per cent of men drink alcohol. In comparison to Bihar, Maharashtra has a lower rate of liquor consumption in both rural and urban areas. In Maharashtra’s metropolitan areas, 13% of the population consumes alcohol; in rural areas, the figure rises to 14.7 per cent.
This plainly demonstrates that, despite the liquor ban, it is not really banned and a good percentage of people are consuming liquor in Bihar.
Even before the liquor was banned in the state, Bihar consumed close to 25 million litres of alcohol each month, as per state excise department figures shared with IndiaSpend. The same year, the estimated all-India figures for alcohol consumption stood at about 5.4 billion litres. And just after the ban was effected, illicit liquor trade started proliferating in the state.
Liquor mafias in the state
Anyone detected brewing, keeping, selling, or exporting liquor can face a 10-year prison sentence as well as a fine of Rs 1 lakh under the current Act. Furthermore, anyone caught drinking faces a five- to seven-year prison sentence as well as a fine ranging from Rs 1 to Rs 7 lakh.
Despite the harsh crackdowns, there is still a significant demand, supply, and availability of liquor in the state. While alcohol cannot be officially manufactured or sold in the state, a regular supply of alcohol is available through illegal channels. According to official government data, 5 lakh litres of foreign-made liquor were seized between April 5, 2016, and March 31, 2017. Since April, the figure has risen to 6 lakh.
Even the local reports suggest that a pouch of country-made liquor that used to cost Rs 10-15 now is easily sold for Rs 60-100. A bottle of popular IMFL brand liquor that earlier would cost around Rs 500-700 is being sold for Rs 1,200-1,400. What’s more concerning is that people still buy the expensive liquor.
Interestingly, the traders of spurious liquor have been exploring different ways in smuggling. Ambulances, oil tankers and milk containers have been used to ferry illegal consignments. There have been reports of the use of coffins, bicycle tubes, LPG cylinders and watermelons to hide liquor bottles coming into the State from Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Punjab, Haryana and even India’s neighbour Nepal.
It’s not that there’s no stern police action against offenders. The government data suggests that in the last five years, over 3.46 lakh people have been arrested, 186 police and other officials dismissed, 60 tainted Station House Officers (SHO) banned from postings and 97 lakh litres of IMFL and 53 lakh litres of country-made liquor seized in the State from April 2016 to February 2021.
However, there have been reports on the ground that the bigger players have managed to get away. According to lawyers and social experts, the state has become a centre for the liquor mafia since the prohibition law was enacted. Many high police officers work hand-in-hand with manufacturers and distributors from Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, which are bordering states. According to several investigation reports, police officers are receiving large sums of money in exchange for enabling smuggling of alcohol into the state on a cut-commission basis.
Especially, at the time of state elections, bootleggers and smugglers do brisk business.
And as per the regional reports, instances of politicians distributing alcohol among voters during their campaign have also come out. And liquor sales skyrocket ahead of an election.
Just before the ban, in 2014-15, Bihar made over Rs 3,100 crore from excise duty on liquor sales, according to the Economic Survey of 2016. The survey pointed out that the estimate for 2015-16 was Rs 4,000 crore. For perspective, the state government’s budget provision for the mid-day meal scheme in 2020-21 was Rs 2,554 crore – about 64% of the estimated Rs 4,000 crore.
However, this loss should be juxtaposed against the savings the state makes in terms of reduced healthcare and law and order costs.
Marginalised disproportionately affected
There has been a bias in the manner in which prohibitory arrests are made. This pattern was seen in the first arrest only. The first conviction under the liquor ban in Bihar came in July 2017. Mastan Manjhi, 45, and his brother Painter from the town of Jehanabad, 50 km from Patna, were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and fined Rs 1 lakh each for consuming alcohol. This was before the law was amended in 2018 to reduce the sentence to a three-month jail term or a fine of Rs 50,000 for first-time offenders.
The excise department team had picked up the brothers on a quiet day in the month of May. The Jehanabad district court imprisoned them in July 2017. Six months later, the family somehow managed to arrange bail money and was granted bail from the Patna High Court.
The Manjhis belonged to the Musahar community, the Mahadalits of Bihar, and earned Rs 250 a day driving rented push-carts. Over two years after their conviction, the Manjhi family still remains deep in debt.
In May 2018, two years after the liquor ban, The Indian Express investigated the social profile of inmates arrested under the prohibition law in Bihar. Across three central jails, 10 district jails and nine sub-jails, the report found that the percentage of inmates belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes exceeded the share of the state’s population.
In many instances, the police do not even inform the families of those arrested.
Experts say the police often target the carriers who are poor helpless people looking for employment and not the businessmen.
Moreover, between April 2016 and September 2020, the law enforcement agencies had conducted 488,450 raids, arresting 67,367 people, data from the excise department show. The highest number of raids, 120,481, were in 2017, when 21,292 people were arrested.
And in November 2019, the Patna High Court pulled up the Bihar government for clogging the courts with over 200,000 cases related to the liquor ban.
Inputs from Scroll.in, The Indian Express and Livemint.