Bihar’s prohibition policy is not working

Despite signs of the policy’s failure, Nitish Kumar is determined to enforce it

December 20, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

A victim of the Saran hooch tragedy being treated at the Patna Medical College and Hospital  in Patna.

A victim of the Saran hooch tragedy being treated at the Patna Medical College and Hospital in Patna. | Photo Credit: PTI

The latest hooch (illicit liquor) tragedy in Bihar has put Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on the backfoot. With the death toll rising to 38 and with several people losing their vision and becoming critically ill, the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has appealed to Mr. Kumar to reconsider the government’s prohibition policy and pay compensation to the family members of those who died. However, the Janata Dal (United) leader is seen in no mood to relent. His harsh response — “piyoge to maroge (if you drink liquor, you will die)” — was met with anger from many political parties.

The Bihar Prohibition and Excise (Amendment) Act came into force in 2016. However, liquor is still easily available in the State and can even be delivered at home at a premium cost. It is the poor who are forced to rely on country-made liquor, which has often proved fatal for them. In August 2016, three months after the liquor law was enforced, 19 people died after consuming illicit liquor in the Khajurbanni locality of Gopalganj district. The lower court of Gopalganj convicted all the 13 people accused in the case. However, in July 2022, the Patna High Court acquitted all of them saying “they could not pass the parameters of fair trial envisaged in the laws of land”. The State government has challenged the Patna High Court judgment in the Supreme Court.

Since the enforcement of the liquor law, over 200 people, mostly the poor, have died in several such incidents. Senior BJP leader and party MP Sushil Kumar Modi claims that the toll is over 1,000. In the last six years, about 4 lakh cases in violation of the prohibition policy have been lodged by the State Police and Excise Department and 4.5 lakh people have been arrested. However, less than 1% (only 1,300 people) have been convicted. The rest were let off because of the “lack of corroborative evidence”. Government records state that over 2 crore litres of liquor, including 80,000 litres of country-made liquor, have been seized in about 74,000 raids conducted by enforcement agencies since April 2016 in the State.

Seemingly alarmed by the amount of illicit liquor being seized as well as the number of arrests, Mr. Kumar amended the law thrice. He diluted some of the provisions, including those stating that a community fine would be imposed and everyone in a family would be arrested even if one of them was caught consuming or storing alcohol.

Despite this, huge amounts of illegal liquor are brought in through neighbouring States such as Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal in innovative ways and seized by enforcement agencies. As a result, prisons are crammed with traders and consumers of alcohol. In December 2021, the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice N.V. Ramana, expressed concern that the law was enforced with “lack of foresight” which has led to the “clogging of courts in the State”. In October this year, the Patna High Court expressed concern over how prohibition has led to a new drug culture in the State.

Earlier, all the parties in the State Assembly supported the liquor law. But now they admit in private that it has failed due to “poor implementation”. A deadly nexus of the liquor mafia, the police and local couriers has made liquor easily available everywhere in the State. When Mr. Kumar asserted that he doesn’t have any sympathy for those who died in the hooch tragedy and that there was no question of giving compensation to their families, Mr. Modi asked why the government was refusing to pay compensation when it had done so in the case of the Khajurbanni incident. Even the Left parties, allies of the JD(U), have demanded solatium to the family members of the hooch victims.

Mr. Kumar, on his part, seems determined to continue with the prohibition policy. Critics say this is for two reasons: one, to create a caste-neutral vote bank of women (they suffer the most due to the drinking problem of the male members in their families); and two, to hold on to an issue that could help him achieve his political ambitions at the national level. Perhaps Mr. Kumar views a rollback of the policy as a sign of weakness and personal failure. But the extent of seizure of illicit liquor, the number of people lodged in jail, the low conviction rate, the rising deaths due to consumption of hooch, and similar failed experiments in other regions all point to the fact that the policy is not working despite being diluted thrice, and to the need for yet another rethink.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.