Bihar in ‘high spirits’ despite dry law

Bihar in ‘high spirits’ despite dry law

A few days after prohibition in Bihar was enforced on April 5, 2016, 40-year-old Himanshu Prasad, a private sector employee, would drive in his Maruti Swift to Hazaribagh in Jharkhand every weekend. Not for the pleasure of driving, but he made the 250-km journey (one way) to ‘quench his thirst’.

While making Bihar a dry state, the Nitish Kumar regime had brought in a stringent law: one would face a jail sentence of 5-10 years for consumption of liquor, besides a penalty of Rs 10 lakh.

So, the best option for people like Himanshu was to travel to Jharkhand and enjoy a drink. But all this is a thing of the past. Nowadays, the likes of Himanshu, instead of spending on fuel, prefer to make a phone call for home delivery of liquor. Of course, it comes at a huge premium. But who cares if it saves the time, money and energy involved in visiting a neighbouring state just to gulp a few glasses of drinks.

“I know of a colleague who would travel by train from Patna to Deogarh (in Jharkhand), a four-hour run by any express mail, to have his drinks and return. This was in 2016. As time passed, more and more liquor, be it country-made or Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL), were available throughout Bihar, at almost double or triple the maximum retail price, depending on the brand,” says Himanshu.

Officer’s choice

At every public meeting, Nitish shouts from the roof-top that he has successfully enforced prohibition, but he, too, knows that right from his senior officers to a plumber/electrician, everyone gets his quota of drinks every day, at  a heavy premium. Rather, prohibition has given rise to a new set of criminals in Bihar – the lure of lucre has turned school and college students into liquor couriers.

“In theory, the enforcement of prohibition looks appealing. But see the side-effects. The focus of police, in the last two years, has shifted from controlling crime to enforcement of the dry law,” an IPS officer, who wished not be identified, told Deccan Herald.

To buttress his point, he cites the number of raids and arrests made. “Over 5.6 lakh liquor-related raids have been conducted in the  state since April 2016. Around 89,000 FIRs have been lodged for consumption of liquor or smuggling of banned product. And, till May 2018, over 1.5 lakh persons have been arrested for violating prohibition,” he said.

The latest instance is the arrest of a Chinese national, only identified as Tiandong, from a guesthouse in Patna. The apprehended foreigner was in possession of two bottles of liquor when police raided his room. He was sent to jail, despite senior diplomats’ intervention.

Not a day passes when vernacular dailies are not splashed with reports of seizure of liquor from trucks carrying food grains, fruits or edibles, not to speak of thousands of small vans. “Over 23 lakh litres of IMFL and country-made liquor have been seized so far,” said veteran journalist Arun Kumar, who has written a series of reports on how fallacious prohibition in Bihar is.

One think-tank recently submitted a report that prohibition has been quite successful in the sense that people who earlier splurged on drinks now save substantial money and spent it on purchasing sweets, milk products, branded clothes, vehicles and even houses. It even reported that crimes against women have come down. Not many in Bihar agree with the findings.

“This report is complete rubbish. The fact is, liquor is easily available in Bihar. You only have to have the right contact. Public spending has increased after the implementation of Seventh Pay Commission and the hike in salaries of everyone from school teachers to anganwadi workers. Therefore, it is incorrect to relate the rise in consumption of other goods to savings on liquor. And, so far as crimes against women are concerned, the less said the better. Just go through the local newspapers to get a feel of how crimes against women have increased manifold in the last couple of years,” said a Patna University professor, preferring anonymity.

Former excise minister Shivanand Tiwary says that during his stint a decade ago, the excise revenue collection was around Rs 1,700 crore, which later rose to around Rs 5,000 crore when Nitish allowed opening of liquor shops during his 2010-15 term. “All that revenue has been lost since he took a U-turn in 2016 and enforced prohibition.”

Porous borders

It’s a double whammy. On the one hand, the state lost its major source of revenue to the tune of Rs 5,000 crore. On the other, despite prohibition, liquor is easily available.

“No force on earth can strictly enforce prohibition in Bihar because of its topography. Bihar shares a porous border with UP in the west, Nepal in north, West Bengal in east and Jharkhand in the south. It’s impossible to enforce a complete ban on liquor despite numerous raids and arrests,” conceded the senior cop.