On the campaign trail in Bihar, Nitish Kumar made a promise to women voters that he will ban alcohol if voted to power. Now ensconced as chief minister for the fourth time, he has made good his promise with his first policy decision this time around. Come April 1 next year, entire Bihar will go dry. Considering that the state earned Rs 3,665 crore in the last fincial year as excise revenue from alcohol sales, surely Nitish Kumar’s decision has not come easy. He has said the government should think in terms of public interest as there have been complaints galore from women about ‘male members of the family resorting to drinking and creating nuisance, which also affected the education of their children’. As the poor, particularly dalits, are worst affected by this social evil, the Bihar chief minister has said his government will ‘calibrate’ expenditure in certain sectors to offset the fall in revenue from alcohol. The principal opposition party BJP has come out in whole-hearted support of total prohibition in the state. The reason why the BJP is seeing eye to eye with the ruling JD(U)-RJD combine in this matter is Nitish Kumar’s successful efforts to cultivate women as a ‘caste-neutral’ constituency in caste-domited Bihar. In the recent elections, women came out in droves to vote for Kumar, grateful for his crackdown on crime, reserving 50 percent seats in panchayats for women and welfare schemes for the girl child like providing them free bicycles to go to school.
Since the sale, purchase and consumption of alcohol is a state subject, it is up to each state government to decide it wants to ban it or not. Bihar will thus join states like Gujarat, Mahatma Gandhi’s home state, which has enforced prohibition since its inception in 1948, as well as galand and Manipur with alcohol bans from 1989 and 1991 respectively, Kerala which started out last year with ban on country liquor and target to phase out hard liquor in ten years, and the union territory of Lakshadweep. However, this will not be the first time Bihar will go dry; back in 1977-78, it tried to enforce prohibition but failed. As for Nitish Kumar, it is not as if he has always been a crusader for prohibition. Ironically, alcoholism is said to have become a major issue in Bihar thanks to the Nitish Kumar government’s decision to liberalise the state’s liquor policy in 2007 in a bid to earn more excise revenue. Soon big liquor houses made an appearance in the state. But within a few years, a number of women’s self-help groups (SHGs) were up in arms because of ‘liquor widows’ who had lost their husbands to alcohol even as children were getting addicted. In 2013, the ‘Pragatisheel Mahila Sangh’ began a statewide campaign against liquor vendors, but with an important difference. The women leaders concluded that to fight the liquor lobby with its immense clout and money power, they will have to organise their movement as a political struggle. Thus it was that Nitish Kumar assured women SHGs at a state-level programme in July this year that prohibition would be imposed in Bihar if he retained power. He is now moving to undo a damage inflicted by his own government eight years back.
ysayers believe prohibition does not work; it simply pushes alcohol consumption underground, with illicit brewers, bootleggers and the liquor mafia getting into the act. The poor are particularly at risk, consuming hooch or contraband liquor spiked with poisonous methanol and ethanol. This year itself in June, more than a hundred people died in the Mumbai hooch tragedy. Illicit hooch has claimed hundreds of lives in West Bengal, Odisha, Gujarat, Kartaka and Tamil du in the last two decades. Prohibition has been reduced to a mockery in Gujarat, with a flourishing mafia running contraband liquor across the state borders. Having now decided to bite the bullet on banning alcohol, the Bihar chief minister has already sounded a warning that ‘liquor finding its way into the state through unofficial channels’, will be sternly dealt with. He has, however, decided to invoke women’s power once the administrative machinery gets going against liquor. Appealing to women SHGs to help his government enforce the ban on alcohol, Nitish Kumar has directed excise and prohibition officials to award the SHGs which successfully prevented sale of liquor in their villages.
As for Assam, widely considered a tippler’s paradise, liquor sales contribute substantially to keep the government afloat. In this year’s Assam budget, a target of mopping up Rs 600 crore was set through higher duties on liquor and alcohol. But Dispur keeps worrying about how much more it is losing out due to illegal liquor trade. In the monsoon session this year, the Excise minister informed the assembly that a probe will be conducted into allegations of annual revenue loss to the tune of Rs 1,000 crore due to faulty tax collection and corrupt officials issuing false liquor permits. Back in 2008, the then Excise minister publicly voiced concerns at ‘decreasing sale of country liquor’, which he proposed to address by issuing ‘more licenses in each district’. Last year, a House committee recommended legalising the sale of ethnic alcoholic beverages and bring them under license system, as such beverages are an ‘integral part of the life of different ethnic communities’. Meanwhile, alcohol addiction among school-going children, and even women, is on the rise in Assam, as borne out by various surveys in the last 2-3 years. Alcoholism is so rife in our tea gardens that an organisation like the ‘Mothers Club’ is trying to spread awareness door-to-door against liquor in the labour lines. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi may be overjoyed at Nitish Kumar’s grand electoral victory, but prohibition is one area he is not likely to emulate his Bihar counterpart.