Ground Zero - In-depth reportage from The Hindu

After ban, in a state of low spirits

Outside Usha Devi’s house in Deewan Pokhar, the first village in Bihar where show-cause notices have been served on five residents under the new law. Photo: V.V. Krishnan  

At the Patna Golf Club, guests trickle in twos, sip their glasses of chilled Coke bemoaning the dip in the quality of their exchange. There is a deathly silence here as a couple of stray dogs make the sprawling parking area of the club their home. Before April 5, 2016, judges, lawyers, writers and professors would bring their families and tee off in the 120-acre green space before settling down for their favourite drink. First came the ban on country liquor on April 1; four days later, Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) was banned. Spirits tanked in the State. The portly bartender at the club, who made a little extra money courtesy generous tips from patrons, lost out on the Rs.8,000 he took home every month. “It is all gone,” says Shankar Dutt, professor of English Literature at the Patna University. Gone too is Dutt’s rum, the evenings and afternoons spent in the company of friends. In fact, a few hours after the formal announcement of prohibition on IMFL, as members turned up at the club in a last-ditch attempt to shore up their spirits, the Excise department beat them to it and sealed the place.

The sudden about-turn

Rewind to nine years ago. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, in a bid to boost revenues, opened liquor vends in every village. Taking his bacchanalian zeal a step further, country liquor was made available in sachets of 200 ml, at times even offered on credit. The State’s coffers filled with money to the tune of Rs.4,500 crore annually. Then came the sudden turnaround: the newly elected CM in 2015 turned “Gandhian in spirit”.

Conversations in Bihar centre around Before and After — Life Before Prohibition and Life After Prohibition. For the class of people for whom drinking is a social activity, the absence of liquor is enough to send them into bouts of depression. “Alcohol in limited quantity gets the conversation going,” says the genial Dutt. The Chief Minister thought otherwise and decided to make good on the promise he made last year when he announced prohibition in his election addresses. A senior official says the CM’s switch is hard to explain. Some put it down to plain political ambitions of moving to the grand stage of New Delhi. Others say he has carved a place for himself among women, especially in rural Bihar, and perhaps this was his way of atoning for the excesses of the past.

Stringent clauses were added to the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016. Collective fines on villages and communities was a provision that was added. Drinking at home was made a punishable offence; police could seize utensils if it was found they were used for brewing jaggery and mahua (Madhuca longifolia) flowers. ‘Draconian’ provisions include making sale and consumption of alcohol a non-bailable offence; arrest without warrant by the police and excise officials above the rank of sub-inspector on mere suspicion of presence of alcohol; and arrest of family members, including women, above the age of 18, if alcohol is found on the premises. What’s more, even policemen risk suspension for failure to strictly enforce the law.

Protracted deliberations followed before the legislation could be hammered into place. Alliance partner Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), led by Lalu Yadav, demanded that toddy (fermented extract from sugar palm) — pronounced taadi — be kept out, though it is a mystery as the number of toddy tappers is few, bureaucrats point out. But the CM’s Janata Dal (United) partymen point out that there are 1.5 million tappers in the State and they are Pasis, a Dalit caste. So while IMFL is banned, taadi, which is mildly intoxicating when fermented, has been kept out to appease the RJD. Desi liquor made from mixing mahua with jaggery on low flame and fermented for over three days has been banned and ironically, this has affected a key constituency — Musahars, a Mahadalit caste traditionally identified as ‘rat-catchers’.

After ban, in a state of low spirits

Liquor bottles being destroyed on the eve of the ban on countrymade liquor in Bihar on April 5, 2016. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Bouquets and brickbats

Across the State the prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol has evoked both anger and a sigh of relief. On the dusty outskirts of Patna city, the Musahars of Phulwari Sharif, Govindpur, are a sullen lot. The inhabitants live a wretched existence, most of them garbage collectors or fitters or extra farm hands. The unreliable source of income was compensated for by selling mahua. That is well-nigh over now. The Musahars are still making a valiant effort to brew it in stealth even as the police, under instructions, break their kilns. In fact, with prohibition, mahua has started attracting a premium. What was once sold for Rs.100 a kg is now selling for Rs.300 and brought in by road or trains. Often the consignments are confiscated. Says a Phulwari Sharif resident, “The cops arrest us and expect money from us.” It is a routine, raising questions about the efficacy of the ban.

At the Prarambhik Prathamik Vidyalaya, a local school, teachers are fighting a different battle — to enrol children from the Musahar community even as the potent smell of mahua wafts by. Even the prospect of a mid-day meal — assuring the children of at least one wholesome meal in a day — isn’t enough to attract numbers; the parents are more inclined towards sending out their little ones to pick garbage as their income from selling mahua dries up.

For women, who constitute nearly 55 million of the voting population of 105 million, and who came out in overwhelmingly large numbers to vote in favour of Kumar in the last Assembly elections, a total ban is the only way out. A sub-inspector at Phulwari Sharif echoes this sentiment but she has another problem. “We are with the Chief Minister on this move but his decision to punish Station House Officers (SHOs) will not send the right signal as there are many honest officers, just as there are corrupt ones too,” says Savitri Kumar. Eleven SHOs, including the SHO of this thana, have been suspended for dereliction of duty and the Bihar Policemen’s Association is on the warpath. “We used to work 10-12 hours a day; now we work 18 hours,” says its president Mrityunjay Kumar Singh. The association’s demand is that the suspended SHOs be reinstated and the high performers rewarded. “We are being targeted by the administration, and by the people when we move to arrest them,” adds Singh.

There are few who believe his version. The tough-talking Principal Secretary, K.K. Pathak, is one of them. The prime executor of the CM’s design, who was parachuted into the State a few months before the legislation was drafted, believes the police should do more. Sitting in a sprawling room with posters designed by students of the College of Arts and Crafts, Patna, on the ill-effects of alcohol, he keeps a close watch on the control room which has a toll-free number — 18003456268 — manned by 12 operators from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. As we watch, there are informers from far-flung interiors calling in. The state has thrown in a bait: inform and win reward.

“It is not true that we are arresting women or every adult above the age of 18 when found in possession of alcohol. We often found that men feigned ignorance when questioned. There were cases when the man of the house fled, leaving his teenaged daughter behind. The mere threat of arresting every adult of the house is enough for the man or any other male in the house to own up and, in some instances, for an entire village to point out the black sheep amidst them,” says Pathak.

Reports from the ground, however, reveal another story.

The test case village

Outside the unplastered house of Usha Devi in Deewan Pokhar village of Bhagalpur, the district administration has pasted a notice (No: 779 dated. 4.9.2016) asking her to respond to the show-cause notice for violating prohibition provisions. She has been given 14 days to respond, failing which a fine of Rs.1 lakh will be imposed. The iron gate of her house is locked and her four small children huddle around perplexed why their mother, a daily wage labourer, is unable to provide food to them.

Deewan Pokhar is the first village in Bihar where show-cause notices have been served on five residents under the new law: Phulka Devi, Poonam Devi, Ratna Devi and Sevak Chaudhury, besides Usha Devi. Two of them, Phulka Devi and Poonam Devi, were arrested on July 30 and sent to jail after the police recovered 220 litres of countrymade liquor from their houses. The district administration is also mulling over the prospect of imposing a community fine on the residents under the provisions of the new law. Two other villages are also in the firing line.

Ever since Phulka Devi was put behind bars, her three little children have been running a small makeshift shop selling biscuits and lozenges to survive. The eldest, Golu Kumar, is just 12 years old and he looks after his two younger siblings Rahul Kumar and Bishun Kumar. Poonam Devi’s children too have to fend for themselves. Her daughter wonders why her mother has been jailed for doing something which was acceptable a year ago. She now looks after her three brothers and one sister. “Please speak to the authorities and save my daughter,” says Poonam Devi’s mother.

The only male accused, Sevak Chaudhury, works as labourer in a factory. Chaudhury has two small sons and a seven-year-old daughter, and though he did brew country liquor, he had stopped after the ban. “This time the administration implicated me with a threat of a Rs.1 lakh fine going by my past record. They didn’t find even a single bottle of liquor from my house!” he says.

After ban, in a state of low spirits

Rajkumari (third from left), the daughter of Poonam Devi who was arrested after the police recovered 220 litres of countrymade liquor from her house. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Witch-hunt on a hunch?

The families in Deewan Pokhar village that stare at a Rs.1 lakh fine are Mahadalits engaged in their traditional occupation of taadi-tapping. “Why are only people from the poor Mahadalit community being caught, arrested and sent to jail along with threats of community fine? Is it the case that only these communities drink liquor?” asks Brajesh Chaudhury, an educated youth of the village, before he proceeds to answer the question himself: “It has nothing to do with liquor consumption. The well-off backward and upper-caste people of the village have got a new tool in their hand to oppress the lower-caste Mahadalits.” There are about 40-45 houses of Mahadalits in Deewan Pokhar.

Birendra Nath Choubey, Assistant Sub-Inspector at the local Habibpur police station, denies these allegations. “Despite several raids they were not mending their ways and continued making countrymade liquor in their houses,” he says. Excise Superintendent Vijay Shankar Dubey insists he will continue to take strict action till the district is liquor-free. Bhagalpur District Magistrate Adesh Titarmare, who had served the notice on the five Deewan Pokhar residents, says it was on account of their “repeated violation of prohibition provisions”.

The Opposition parties have dubbed the new State excise and prohibition law “draconian” and a “black law”. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had proposed altogether 17 amendments to the new Bill but the government refused to oblige them. “We oppose this draconian law under which all adult members of the family can be arrested and sent to jail if even a wrapper or bottle of liquor is found in their house… we’ll take this issue to the streets,” says senior State BJP leader Nand Kishore Yadav.

His young party MLA Nitin Navin asks rhetorically, “If all adult members are sent to jail after a liquor bottle is found in the house, why not Chief Minister Nitish Kumar when liquor is seized in the State?

The ruling alliance partners, RJD and Congress, had to issue whips to their party MLAs to support the new excise Act in the Assembly. “Our government has decided to make the State liquor-free and we’re supporting the move… it’s an issue which has huge social impact,” defends Deputy CM Tejaswi Yadav of the RJD, who is the son of Lalu Yadav.

Revenue tap goes dry

According to a new report tabled in the Assembly in the monsoon session by Finance Minister Abdul Bari Siddiqui, the State’s revenue has gone down and many attribute this fall to prohibition. From Rs.897 crore in 2015 between April and June, the revenue is down just Rs.42.27 crore this year in the same months. “This new excise and prohibition law is bound to have some hard impact on the State’s financial health. How to make up for an annual loss of Rs.4,500 crore is a big question,” says economist Nawal Kishore Chaudhary.

Patna had 70 liquor outlets run by a group of 58 people. The liquor barons, their business sunk, drop hints that they have bankrolled political parties for as long as they can remember. Says one of them, “Two breweries, UB and Carlsberg, were planning to operationalise their plants here. It’s not just liquor, but soda, the entire ancillary industry making bottles, corks… all have shut down,” he points out. Bihar Industries Association general secretary Subodh Kumar, who owns a soda-making unit, is thinking of shifting it to Siliguri in West Bengal. “People don’t order soda without their drink. What should I do,” he asks. The State government is hoping to persuade liquor shops to now sell milk products under the Sudha Dairy brand of the Bihar State Milk Co-Operative Federation Ltd. patterned on the lines of the successful Amul venture. Only one ‘erstwhile’ liquor vend is selling milk now.

Hotel occupancies are going down too as guests can no longer bring liquor or have them on the premises. A hotelier says, “In the last three months, corporates have preferred to host their conferences and meetings in neighbouring Ranchi [in Jharkhand].”

In response to his critics, the Bihar CM blogged on a news portal on August 10: “If one is serious and determined to see through prohibition in Bihar, then there is no place for ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. A combination of a fair and strict implementation of law coupled with an inspired people’s campaign is a way to go.” The question, though, on everyone’s mind is: how long before Nitish Kumar blinks?

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 9:07:37 AM |

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