Victims and beneficiaries of Bihar prohibition law live cheek by jowl; those who continue liquor trade blame lack of jobs

With the Lok Sabha election approaching, prohibition will, once again, be used as an important poll plank in Bihar.

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Patna: This is a tale of two women in two nearby villages. It is a tale of hope and a tale of despair, as well as a tale of prohibition, its few successes and many failures, as experienced in the once-prosperous weaving centre that is the Jehanabad Lok Sabha constituency.

Ranti Devi, a 30-year-old from Dharnai village, about 30 kilometres from Jehanabad railway station, is one of those who hail the government's decision to enforce a ban on liquor in the state.

"We don't have land. My father-in-law Saheb Manjhi is a daily-wage labourer. Earlier, he used to spend all the money he earned on liquor. His contribution to the family was zero. We used to eat rice without vegetables and bread only with salt. He now gives us Rs 400 from his earnings and we can spend Rs 50 every day on green vegetables. This is the benefit of prohibition," she said.

Coming from the Manjhi community, Ranti Devi is an intermediate graduate who got married in 2008 to Jogender Manjhi, who only passed Class 9. After marriage, the mother of four helped her husband study further by working at the Anganwadi Kendra. This year, he graduated with first division. "Had my father-in-law not quit drinking, it would have been difficult to manage the family," she said.

Mahadalit tola in Dharnai village has 250-odd families belonging to the lower Musahar and Paasi communities. Just 25 kilometres away is Ratni village — one of the half a dozen villages that was penalised for making, selling and consuming country-made liquor (mahua daaru) — where there are around 50 Musahar families that brew mahua daaru and live in their own section in the village named Ratni Musahari.

Ranti Devi is one of those who hail the move to enforce prohibition in Bihar as it helped her father-in-law quit drinking and brought more money to the famliy. Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters

Ranti Devi is one of those who hail the move to enforce prohibition in Bihar as it helped her father-in-law quit drinking and brought more money to the famliy. Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters

It is a tale of despair for the family of a 70-year-old landless labourer, Aata Manjhi, in Ratni village. He has been arrested nine times for possession and consumption of alcohol since the prohibition Act came into force in Bihar in April 2016. His wife Srikanti Devi is vocal in her opposition to the liquor ban and its ardent sponsor, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

"I took loans and sometimes worked at brick kilns and construction sites to get money for my husband's bail and family expenses," said Srikanti Devi, a mother of five, estimating that she had spent at lease Rs 3 to 4 lakh since prohibition was enforced in Bihar.

"Whenever my husband is arrested, we have to spend Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 on travelling expenses and lawyer's fees," she said, adding that to meet the expenses, she was forced to sell four of her precious goats for Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000. "Money was not sufficient as we are a nine-member family. I had planned for my sons to appear in the matriculate exams, but where we will get the money from?"

Many of her community also allege that they are often falsely implicated in cases related to violations of the liquor ban. One such case is of 70-year-old Dilchan Manjhi of Ratni village.

"My son Sufi Manjhi was resting when the police came on 17 February and picked him up," Dilchan said. "They falsely showed that Sufi had three litres of liquor in his possession, when he did not have even a single drop."

The local police could not be contacted for comment.

At least 30 percent of the population of Bihar's Jehanabad constituency comprises Dalits, while upper caste members make up 12 to 15 percent of it. This constituency has witnessed some of Bihar's bloodiest class struggles that culminated in deaths on both sides. Today, Jehanabad is a source of cheap daily wage labour as most Dalits are landless. Many Dalit labourers also migrate to Punjab, Gujarat, Delhi and other states as farm and construction labourers.

Among the Dalits, Bihar's 2.2 million Musahars are the worst off. This forced the community to get into the mahua daaru  business for more than two decades and ultimately made them face the brunt of the harsh penalties of the prohibition law. Yet, barely 3.5 kilometres from Ratni village is Pahari Bigha village where Musahars continue to make and sell mahua daaru despite the anti liquor crackdown. And they have enough reasons to justify their actions.

People of Pahari Bigha are ready to quit the liquor-making business if the government provides jobs. Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters

People of Pahari Bigha are ready to quit the liquor-making business if the government provides jobs. Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters

For Phoola Devi, mahua daaru came as a saving grace and helped her take care of her family after her husband died 15 years ago. Describing how she had no money to look after her three children, the 80-year-old said: "I saw some people making mahua daaru, and to survive, I also started brewing it. The earnings enabled me to get my three daughters married."

She also recalled the police crackdown on liquor, saying that she had explained to the police that till the government provided her, and others like her, other means of income, she will not stop making mahua daaru.

Other landless villagers involved in the mahua daaru trade expressed the same sentiment. Their problems were compounded when the price of raw mahua rose from Rs 25 to Rs 30 per kilogram to Rs 100 to Rs 125 after the liquor ban came into effect. But they persevered as the demand for their liquor was huge.

The irony here is that the Government of Bihar is spending more money on enforcing prohibition than ever before. According to a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India tabled in the Bihar Assembly, the expenditure of the excise department rose by Rs 41 crore in 2016-2017 as compared to that the previous year.

Two years after promulgating the prohibition law and in response to the arguments of Musahars, the state government launched the Satat Jivikoparjan Yojana for the affected families of mahua makers. On 5 August, 2018, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had also announced financial help for the community to the help them venture into other businesses.

According to Arun Kumar Singh, the principal secretary to the secretariat department, "Those who made country liquor and tari (palm wine) will benefit from this scheme, which has been allocated Rs 840 crore for the next three years."

But this correspondent could not find a single beneficiary of the scheme in the three villages he visited.

The reality is that politicians in the state continue to hail the "success" of prohibition even as the illegal business of country-made liquor and Indian-made foreign liquor continues to rise. According to excise and prohibition department officials, they have seized 16 lakh litres of Indian-made foreign liquor and 9 lakh litres of country-made liquor since prohibition was introduced and registered more than 1.4 lakh police cases.

Since the chief minister announced the liquor ban in Bihar on 5 April, 2016, the has undergone a myriad of changes. The Bihar High Court had declared the law illegal a few months after its promulgation, but the Supreme Court had stayed the verdict.

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Meanwhile, the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar has toned down the crackdown on violations of the liquor ban, which used to include five to 10 years in prison and fines of up to Rs 1 lakh. Over 1.61 lakh people were arrested under this law, which was amended in 2018, primarily under electoral compulsions. The amendment reduced the punishment for first-time offenders to a fine of Rs 50,000 or three months' jail time and for second-time offenders to five years in jail and a fine of Rs 1 lakh. The earlier provisions of seizing the property where the illegal liquor was found and mass punishment were also done away with. It was only recently that the high court decreed that those arrested before the amendment came into force would be tried under the amended Act, though 90 percent of cases under the earlier law have yet to go to trial.

Interestingly, Bihar had introduced total prohibition in 1977-1978 under former chief minister Karpoori Thakur. It had proved to be a total failure then, as it had in Andhra Pradesh, Mizoram and Tamil Nadu, states where prohibition was subsequently repealed.

Now, as parties prepare for the Lok Sabha election, the Jehanabad seat — currently represented by first-time MP Arun Kumar of the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) — will find prohibition, once again, being used as an important poll plank. Nitish Kumar never misses the opportunity to project the ban as a grand success, even though the RLSP MP says "prohibition has completely failed and will work against the NDA".

As this correspondent left Pahari Bigha, local community leader Ramashish Manjhi repeated what others in the village had said: "The government should provide employment. If it does, no one will make liquor in my tola."

The author is a Patna-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters


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