Bihar liquor ban: Will Nitish Kumar's plan to create a dry state actually work?

When I was asked to write a weekender piece on ‘Dry’ Bihar — based more on personal reactions than on political/economic arguments for or against it — I instantly agreed as I had spent a whole week in Patna after Holi and the looming prospect of a dry state was invariably a subject of discussion in all drink sessions.

Some of us, old friends from JNU days, had got together in the house of a senior IAS officer for a drink followed by dinner. It was 29 March. I asked my bureaucrat friend what would happen six months down the line — would he be able to host such a party for us? I asked this because country liquor was supposed to have been banned in Bihar a couple of days later, from 1 April, but Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) was tentatively scheduled to be phased out from October. My friend said, rather philosophically: “Six months are a long time to come. There is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Why worry about an uncertain future? Just enjoy the moment”.

Nitish Kumar. Image from IBNlive

Nitish Kumar. Image from IBNlive

The dreary day that we thought would come six months later, as it happened, came exactly after six days. I was back in Delhi then, but on 4 April, I saw on TV a beaming Nitish Kumar, buoyed by the popular reaction to the ban on country liquor on April 1, making the declaration to go the whole hog and declare Bihar a dry state. And, the next day, I saw the photograph of my friend taking oath with other colleagues, under the stewardship of the indomitable Anjani Kumar Singh, the chief secretary (who also happens to be a former student of JNU) not to touch liquor again — not in Bihar, not in Delhi, not in a foreign land, not in this life time!

Abstinence from liquor is not merely a legal requirement in Bihar now, it has also become a moral pledge!

A journalist friend in Delhi asked me over a drink the other day: how would I react if I were working in Bihar now? Well, I worked in Bihar for over a decade and enjoyed every moment of it. But I would have decided to move out of Bihar if I were to live in a regime of prohibition. Not that I am a habitual drinker. There are times when I do not drink for days, weeks and months. But I cherish a drink when I sit down with my friends or I go out to a restaurant with my family for a dinner. I want my freedom to drink as and when I choose. I do not want to be held hostage to the tyranny of political correctness.

Arvind Kumar, well-known lawyer and activist at Patna, puts it in perspective: “I am a vegetarian and a teetotaler. Nobody in my family drinks. But why should the state decide whether or not I should drink. The same Nitish Kumar had come out in defence of everyone’s right to eat beef, when the BJP made a big demand to prohibit the sale of beef in India. If I have a right to eat as I choose, why should I not have the right to drink as I choose?”, he asks. Binod Singh, founder of Oxygen, an education movement in Patna, who also does not drink, echoes the same sentiment: "In a democracy, the state cannot decide for me what I eat or drink".

Prof Naval K Chaudhury, a former principal of Patna College, however, has a different take on the matter. He says that Bihar needed a crackdown on binge drinking both in the rural and urban areas which had led to a series of crimes against women. So total prohibition was the need of the hour. “Nitish Kumar must be congratulated at least for this bold, clear and unwavering decision.”

There are many who would say that it was Nitish Kumar who was responsible for the drinking menace reaching such alarming proportions. Dipak Bharati, a well-known NGO activist in Madhubani, Bihar, has this to say: “Lalu Yadav is blamed for many ills of Bihar, but (addiction to) drinking was not one of them. It was Nitish Kumar’s policy in 2006 to open licensed liquor shops in every panchayat, and in some areas every village, that made drinking a pastime for old and young alike. The state revenue soared, but a large mass of the population turned out to be alcohol addicts.”

Prof R N Sharma of Patna University corroborates the point: “In 2004-05, the excise revenue was barely Rs 350 crore. Nitish’s take-liquor-to-the-villages policy fetched ten times the revenue. The excise income rose to over Rs 4,000 crore.”

But it had tragic consequences. So Nitish Kumar wants to do penance. As S K Singh, another distinguished lawyer at Patna says: “ When his cash-starved treasury desperately needed resources, Nitish Kumar used liquor as the bait and earned big money. Now that he is flush with money (as all state governments are, with the new devolution policy devised by the Finance Commssion the states are getting a larger share of the national income), he wants to undo the damage he has caused in the last decade”.

Will he succeed in this endeavour? That is a big challenge. Many say that Bihar will go the Gujarat way, where liquor is officially prohibited, but it is be home-delivered on the sly by an SMS or a phone call. One will have to shell out extra money, as the police and the excise officials have to be gratified to make the parallel system work.

Supporters of Nitish Kumar say that Bihar is not Gujarat. Their leader, ably assisted by Anjani Singh’s crack team, would make Bihar a landmark example of a success story for prohibition. But Deepak Bharati has a question for such people: “ Gutka is officially banned in the state. But it is being sold openly in the heart of Patna, not to speak of the outlying areas, in cahoots with the local police. Why has Nitish Kumar’s ‘efficient’ team not been able to enforce this government ban?”

Some say that Nitish has posted an outstanding officer of Bihar cadre, KK Pathak, as the excise commissioner and he knows how to deliver. But listen to what another IAS officer says: “KK Pathak was also employed as Patna’s municipal commissioner to work a system to keep Patna clean. But, see, over the years, Patna has become dirtier, the whole city has turned into a garbage bin. The prohibition campaign will meet a similar fate”.

Most say that with the prohibition in force, the tourism industry will collapse, the clubs will shut shop. But the more vital question is: what will happen to the judges, politicians, top civilian and police officers for whom drinking is a daily part of life just as eating or taking a bath is? Will they resign themselves to a dreary life sans alcohol? Or will they carve out a separate world of their own, shielded from public scrutiny? As Pranav K Caudhury, a distinguished journalist with the Times of India asks, “Will it be like the corruption cases where the big fish almost always evade the dragnet? Will it be the assigned duty of the policemen to confiscate liquor from the aam aadmi and and supply it to the khaas people?”

The actual scenario will unravel in the next few weeks or months.

P.S. I spoke to Raman Sindhi, a motivational speaker at Patna, who I knew loved his evening peg. I asked him how was he doing in the dry state. He said that he had just one spare bottle of scotch when the government suddenly announced the complete prohibition policy and clamped down on the sale of liquor. The very next day a senior IPS officer whom he knew very well called up to ask him if Raman Sindhi had a spare bottle as the police officer had to entertain some guests and he had run out of alcohol. Sindhi said as the police officer was a dear friend, he handed over the bottle to his driver. He has gone without drinks infor the next two days. “Maybe it is a boon for my good health!," he says, tongue-in-cheek.

Updated Date: Apr 09, 2016 11:22 AM

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