The Bihar countryside can be a pleasure to the eye. Lush and green interspersed with mud and straw huts, farmers in their fields, cattle grazing. In that sense, Bihar has not ‘modernized’, no industrial complexes, no smokestacks, highways remain narrow, truck traffic is thin. This state still lives as it has done for decades, but in one respect Bihar seeks to set the trend or lay the ground for the rest of the nation: in the little over two months since Chief Minister Nitish Kumar banned liquor, he’s challenged the BJP to impose prohibition starting with those states where the party is in power; he’s agreed to join women’s groups in Maharashtra in their struggle for a total ban on liquor; women in Uttarakhand, UP and Rajasthan have backed his ban the bottle campaign. The strategy is pretty clear, to build a massive nationwide constituency among women voters well ahead of the 2019 general elections.
Will he succeed? Politics is the art of the possible and if the results of the recent assembly elections are any guide, Nitish seems to have shrewdly grasped that women are an untapped constituency, they suffer the most
from drunken husbands, and who better than Nitish to emerge as their saviour (and reap the electoral rewards). In the recent panchayat elections, Nitish Kumar may have struck pay dirt: the turnout of women voters was reported to be unprecedented.
EXPLORING THE BAN
I decided to get a first-hand feel of India’s newest dry state (where I come from) at a time when the panchayat polls were about half way through. At Patna Airport I hailed a cab and told the driver to take me to a polling booth outside the city. As we hit the highway, Rajesh Yadav my driver who was in his early 30s, confessed to mixed reactions to prohibition. He was happy that his father, a regular drinker, would regain lost health (not to mention wealth) and of course there would be family peace. But he was disconsolate that those weekend parties he used to be invited to were now out of the question.
We arrived in Parev village on the banks of the Sone river near Bihta, about 40 km from Patna. The sun was scorching and as the shadows shortened, the queues at the polling booth appeared to lengthen. The polling booth was managed entirely by women, an initiative of the Patna district magistrate. The presiding officer Mrs. Sushma Rani, principal of a local government school, was clear that prohibition was a good thing especially for women belonging to lower classes.
“Banning liquor is going to dent state exchequer by a huge Rs. 4000 crore annually,” she admitted, “but as Nitish has a vision for a healthy, wealthy and peaceful Bihar, he didin’t hesitate going for a complete ban on liquor including IMFL (Indian made foreign liquor) and toddy. I work in a village school and interact daily with parents of the students mostly the mothers, who all are very happy with the liquor ban.”
She said that in villages where daily earners dominate, alcohol abuse was widespread with men spending Rs.80-100 on liquor. This was the main cause for domestic violence and the family’s poor economic situation leading to children being kept out of school. It would seem that as far as the men were concerned, liquor had priority over everything else. Mrs. Rani was hopeful the liquor ban would relieve the financial burden on lower class families and they could see some improvement in their lives.
It is a point the chief minister invariably invokes, that money spent on liquor will now be spent on the family. He believes total prohibition will pump an average Rs 15,000 to 20,000 crore into the state’s economy.
The same evening I was a guest for dinner at the residence of a very well-known Patna doctor. His sprawling drawing room, which till the other day had one of the best stocked bars in the city, was empty. The doctor couple apologised, saying they could not serve me any liquor as prohibition had compelled them to empty whisky and wine worth around Rs.3 lakh into the kitchen sink!
We were not daily drinkers or alcoholics, this ban has ruined our social life in the evenings, he complained. But to my surprise, the doctor’s wife had a different take on the ban. She was happy with the government’s decision including the fact that hotels were not exempt. Her point was that alcohol abuse and domestic violence was not restricted solely to the lower classes. Liquor, as she put it, had the same effect on people high and low. Her husband was visibly embarrassed and I turned the conversation to other aspects of the ban on alcohol.
Prohibition has not worked anywhere in India. Would Bihar be any different? It’s too early say but I found that my politician friends, those in the IAS or IPS, even journalists, were not serving liquor, which is odd to say the least. Nitish Kumar may not be able to protect the lives and property of his people but somehow, prohibition (at least for now) is working in homes, among families and the credit goes to the women, who are policing their homes.
While women appear happy, there are those habitual drinkers (men and women), who developed “withdrawal symptoms” when their daily tipple became unavailable. One died in Patna Medical College & Hospital (PMCH), he was a police assistant sub inspector who collapsed during a court hearing. The other died in Katihar Medical College and Hospital.
One patient undergoing treatment for alcoholism said, “As soon as I stopped consuming alcohol, my body started shivering. Then I was admitted to hospital.” Another said, “I have been drinking alcohol since 1980. When I stopped consuming alcohol, I fell ill.”
According to data received by the State Health Society of Bihar, 749 people have been admitted to the state’s 38 new de-addiction centres. But that’s not all. According to a counsellor at a private rehab centre in Patna, which has been roped in by the government to assist in its de-addiction drive, “The de-addiction centre at Nalanda Medical College & Hospital in Patna has referred to us a teenage patient who had turned violent. His family told us the boy
was a heavy drinker and had started chewing whatever he could lay his hands on, including chilli, since imposition of the ban.”
For the chief minister, prohibition in his time is unique. Rubbishing warnings that the booze ban will fail (as in former chief minister Karpoori Thakur’s time in 1979), Nitish says that, “This time, the decision on total prohibition was taken after a thorough study of past experiences including the one executed by Karpoori Thakur. We decided to go for total prohibition after I found that people were coming on to streets to oppose opening new shops for sale of IMFL. This time, the government has wide-ranging support from the public especially women.”
He believes prohibition will not only succeed in Bihar, it will have a “positive impact” across the country. “The Bihar ban will be a guiding light to other states. I have been receiving invitations from common public and women for advocating liquor ban in their respective states. Women’s groups in Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha have already invited me to help imposition of total ban on liquor in their states,” he claimed.
However, senior BJP leader Sushil Modi accused the chief minister of targeting the Pasi community that sells toddy for a living. “When there is no ban on the sale of toddy under the Bihar Excise Act, then on what grounds has the administration directed district officials to crackdown on the sale of toddy?” he asked.
A petition against prohibition has been filed in the Patna High Court, the petitioner contending that the state government’s decision violated human rights of a citizen about what to eat and drink. Filed by an ex-serviceman AN Singh, the writ described the penal provision in the Amended Exise Act of Bihar, which was passed in the state Legislative Assembly on March 31, 2015, as “draconian, arbitrary and malafide” as it violated Article 14, 19, 21 and 22 of the Constitution.
Others have taken the easy way out to beat the ban. Bihar’s borders with UP, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Nepal are witnessing a huge jump in cross border traffic. In Nepal, local hotel owners say alcohol sales have risen three times since the ban was imposed. Prices have also gone through the roof with some liquor vendors trying to pass off low quality alcoholic drinks.
But Nitish is firm. There will be no relaxation of any kind and he appears all set to launch a campaign to convince every Indian who drinks, to stop drinking. The move towards temperance is not new but if Bihar makes a success of it, it will be an exception that will defy history.
Bihar’s borders with UP, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Nepal are witnessing a huge jump in cross border traffic. In Nepal, local hotel owners say alcohol sales have risen three times since the ban was imposed. Prices have also gone through the roof with some liquor vendors trying to pass off low quality alcoholic drinks
COST OF PROHIBITION
Gujarat has had prohibition since May 1960 and only those with a medical permit can drink. But liquor is easily available and is delivered (like pizza) free of charge. Stiff penalties are laid down if somebody is found drinking without a permit. But from 1999-2009, of more 70,000 prohibition violation cases registered, there were convictions in only nine.
Nagaland has been a dry state since 1989 but liquor is available everywhere, at a price. A bottle of McDowell’s rum which retails for Rs.130 in Assam, is priced at Rs.200 in Nagaland. The state loses Rs.750 crore in revenues every year but cannot lift prohibition as the powerful Baptist Church says it will oppose any such move tooth and nail.
Mizoram, under pressure from Christian groups banned alcohol in 1997. In 2014, the ban was reversed. The widespread sale of spurious liquor was more of a danger than alcohol itself.
Kerala introduced “limited prohibition” in December last year and plans that in 10 years, the state will go completely dry. At present, liquor is allowed to be served only in five star hotels.
In Andhra Pradesh, the late chief minister NT Rama Rao banned liquor in 1994 after protests against alcohol by women’s groups gained momentum. The law was reversed three years later by Chandrababu Naidu because smuggling from other states reached an all-time high, and the ban proved ineffective.
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