25/08/2016 8:42 PM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 11:04 PM IST

Prison Overflow: More Than 12,000 Arrested In Bihar's Prohibition Drive

A view from the Bihar Excise Department’s control room.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar addresses a rally in which he lambasted on the central and state government demanding liquor ban at Jewar on 29 June, 2016 in Greater Noida, India.

Between 1 April and 20 August, the Bihar government arrested 12,154 persons for violating its prohibition law, data from the state's excise department shows. These numbers include those arrested for possession or consumption of alcohol, as well as those arrested for making, selling or smuggling alcohol.

Nearly half these arrests were made by the excise department and half by the Bihar Police, though some arrests have been made by the railway police, too.

The number of arrests show a steady increase every month. In April, 1,293 were arrested. In May, the figure was 2,379. While the figure showed a small increase to 2,669 in June, it shot up sharply to 3,324 in July. For the month of August, by the 20th alone, the figure was 2,527 and would likely cross 3,000 by the end of the month.

If the Bihar government keeps arresting about 3,000 people a month for violating its prohibition law, it would have put around 1,65,000 people in jail by the time the next Bihar assembly elections are held in 2020.

Excise department official in Patna did not immediately have data to show how many of these arrests were for drinking and how many for selling alcohol, but they said the ratio is around 50:50. Officials say it takes four months on average for an accused to get bail.

"We are strengthening the enforcement wing of the Excise department to enforce the law. We are running five integrated check-posts to prevent alcohol smuggling from other states and have requisitioned x-Ray scanners worth Rs4 crores to deploy at Patna and Gaya airports, other than at 6 major railway stations," says O.P. Mandal, additional excise commissioner.

The Bihar government had amended a 1915 excise law to enforce prohibition form 1st April 2016, though it initially decided to ban only country liquor.

"Around 5,000 shops were shut down but it was decided that IMFL would continue to be sold in 656 shops. But seeing the good public response to prohibition, the government issued a notification on 5th April to ban all alcohol and shut down all shops," says Mandal.

The law stipulates a minimum punishment of ten years, up to life imprisonment, and a minimum fine of Rs 1 lakh, up to 10 lakhs, for offences such as consuming, selling, making, importing or exporting alcohol.

In July, the Bihar government passed a much harsher new law, which the Bihar governor is yet to sign.

The government has seized 2.63 lakh litres of alcohol in over 78,000 raids till 20 August.

The break-up of the seized liquor is as follows: Country liquor: 85,577 litres; spirit: 25,790 litres; Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL): 94,475 litres; beer: 9,763 litres; locally distilled liquor: 35,992 litres; toddy: 8,710 litres; Mahua: 1,195 litres; illegally made Mahua: 252 litres; and 1,253 litres of spiced country liquor (masalaydar desi sharab).

Besides, raids have also been seizing machines to seal pouches of alcohol, wrappers to put around bottles and equipment to make country liquor.

One of the ways the raids and arrests are made is through a complaint call centre, whose number has been publicized across the state. Ten call centre workers sit in a room in the excise department at the New Secretariat building in Patna, receiving on average a hundred calls a day. People call in to inform about the possession or consumption of liquor in their area. This information is immediately emailed to the excise superintendent, the collector and superintendent of police of the district. Whoever can reach the spot first carries out a raid.

Shivam Vij

So far they have booked over 7,600 complaints. But not all calls are to make specific complaints of violation of the prohibition law. Many women call in to say thank you for prohibition, some men call in to ask when prohibition would be abolished so they could drink again, and some call in to say if they could get a free mobile recharge.

The government is pulling out all stops to catch bottles of alcohol. Home guards have been put on the job, and so have ex-army men through the State Auxillary Police. To add to the 538 ex-army men, another 2,000 are being recruited for the purpose. To check smuggling of alcohol through rivers, 23 boats have been rented, which are used for patrolling all day by 7-8 excise officials in each boat.

On 31 March, the department destroyed lakhs of plastic bottles of country liquor using road rollers. Two of the twelve IMFL factories in the state have shut down. While these factories are being allowed to function should they want to make alcohol to sell outside the state, doing so is financially unviable for them, and they have filed a case in court.

The movement of alcohol and the raw materials required by these factories is strictly regulated through a GPS system, overseen by a private company operating from the Bihar excise department's office. Each vehicle carrying their goods is tracked on a big screen, and the vehicles can be opened or closed only with a digital locker, so that the government can see if they are being opened on the way.