Bihar's Booze Taliban

08/08/2016 8:44 AM IST | Updated 08/08/2016 8:46 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Ever since Nitish Kumar prohibited liquor in Bihar, many people have been asking me for my take on the matter. They ask me because I belong to Bihar and more importantly because as part of the Aam Aadmi Party I also supported Nitish Kumar's candidature during the Bihar elections.

Ever since Nitish came to power in 2005, he has taken several steps that can be called milestones. Be it distributing cycles to schoolgirls or converting houses of corrupt officers into schools or strictly implementing the Arms Act, he did things that had an impact on the ground. So much so that he was called "Sushasan Babu" (Mr. Good Governance) by his erstwhile friends of the BJP.

So, on my first visit to Bihar since the prohibition started, I made sure to talk to various people about the ban and tried to glean the prevailing sentiments around it. I will, however, confess before proceeding that the people I talked to were all from the city so my assessment might be skewed towards a certain section of society. However, I think I can also safely assume that most people reading this article also belong to the same section.

While women would like their husbands to shun alcohol, they would not like them to end up in jail.

First and foremost, there is an element of fear. People are scared that they will end up in jail if they get caught drinking, are drunk, or simply having a bottle of liquor in their house or car. It is quite unlike the early 2000s when I moved from Patna, when everyone believed that one could circumvent anything by paying a small amount.

The crime graph has also dropped sharply. There is a reported drop of 27% in crime and road accidents have dropped by 33% in the 20 days post the prohibition came into force on 5 April 2016. At the same time, there have been reports that people have found innovative ways to fight the liquor ban – such as concealing liquor in milk containers and ambulances, or visiting neighbourhood states for their fix and even the bordering Nepal. All said and done, though, no one can deny that crime and accident rates have come down.

I talked to the domestic help who works for my parents in Patna. She is very happy with the liquor ban. Her drunkard husband, who earlier used to spend all her savings on country liquor and would beat her and the kids after drinking, has mended his ways. She cannot help but rave about how "Nitish babu" has changed her life.

Then I asked her what she would do if her husband was caught drinking and sent to jail. She stood silent for a moment and said, "Pata nahi bhaiya. Ye jail mein rahega to pata nahi hamara kya hoga (I don't know. If he is put in jail I don't know what will happen to me)." That is when something dawned upon me. While women would like their husbands to shun alcohol, they would not like them to end up in jail.

Interestingly, the proposed legislation says that if liquor is seized from a person, then not only the person, but all their family members above the age of 18 will go to jail. So, if a 48-year-old man is caught with liquor at his home, his wife, his parents and even his children, if they are above 18, can be sent to jail.

If a 48-year-old man is caught with liquor at his home, his wife, his parents and even his children, if they are above 18, can be sent to jail.

Imagine a situation where the families of all rapists, illegal arms possessors, dacoits and murderers are also thrown in jail for the crime. What mayhem would that cause and what uproar will be there by civil society? Yet, very few people are speaking up against this draconian law lying on the Governor's table in Patna.

On top of that, the law also gives the police the right to enter any house at any point, search the premises and arrest a person and his entire family if liquor is found. I was told about a certain police inspector in Patna who is said to have obtained breath analyzers at personal expense, as he believes it will be a great source of "revenue" for him.

The infamous Bihar police constable can now walk into your house with an empty bottle of beer, keep it in your property and take money from you for not reporting it. You will not be able to do much except for pleading with him to settle for a smaller amount. However, even though the police have got more powers, the amended law also has tougher provisions against harassment by them and excise officials -- the punishment for misuse of the law is now up from three months to three years in jail, and a fine of up to ₹1 lakh applies.

Apart from this, innumerable cases are filed every day in Bihar due to property disputes. False allegations are not uncommon and the liquor ban provides a new way. You can just throw an empty bottle of liquor into the premises of someone you want to settle scores with and inform the police.

The impact of prohibition on the events/hospitality industry is something that is not being talked about at all. The hotel occupancy of Patna's most famous hotel, Maurya, has fallen from 90% to 35% as per my sources. Anybody who can afford a wedding in Ranchi or Banaras is choosing them over Patna and banquet owners are already feeling the heat. Corporate events have also shifted to Ranchi and the state bureau chiefs of most channels have either shifted or are planning to shift to Ranchi. Jharkhand is more than happy with this unexpected attention.

There is no question that prohibition has made a positive impact on the society overall. The problem is with the overzealous, almost Taliban-like approach that Nitish is taking. It is also interesting to note that the initial prohibition was only on country liquor. After pressure from Sushil Modi of the BJP, the ban was extended to foreign liquor also.

You can just throw an empty bottle of liquor into the premises of someone you want to settle scores with and inform the police.

It is not the first time a state in India has banned liquor. In Gujarat, liquor has been banned since the 1960s. But there, five star hotels are allowed to serve alcohol and more than 60,000 alcohol permits have been issued to individuals. Also, a very robust underground liquor smuggling system exists in Gujarat and my friends in the state tell me that one can get alcohol home delivered with cash-on-delivery facility.

A more practical system exists in Kerala. Country liquor is completely banned and there are very few foreign liquor shops in each of the cities. So few that one can count them on one's fingers. Anybody who wants to purchase liquor has to show their ID card and purchase at most two bottles of liquor.

Here's a question I want to ask: why is Nitish playing into the hands of the BJP and walking down this dangerous path?

A journalist friend offered a very strange conspiracy theory as a possible explanation. It sounded farfetched, but I couldn't help but ponder over the possibility. So just read the following before making assumptions.

The liquor trade in Bihar is valued around ₹60,000 crore. The government used to earn nearly ₹4000 crore as tax due to this trade.

After the prohibition, underground trade will flourish and the value of this trade will become more than twice the actual value. Nitish might end up patronizing this underground trade in exchange for a hefty amount (a few thousand crores) to fund his prime-ministerial ambitions in 2019. Given that Nitish does not have an Ambani or an Adani to fund him and that he has strong prime ministerial ambitions, this conspiracy theory seems to have an element of plausibility.

Let us see if Nitish realizes the pitfalls of such strict prohibition and mellows down, or lets the police have a field day and patronize the underground trade.

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