Starting this week, Bihar has become a dry state, with the Nitish Kumar led-government banning the sale and consumption of all kinds of liquor. It’s a move that fulfils a major electoral promise made to the women of the state during campaigning. Enthused by the ‘overwhelming response’ to the partial ban on country liquor in the state, Bihar has opted for an immediate ban on Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) from April 1, instead of implementing the ban in a phased manner as was initially planned.
The decision, Kumar said, is driven by women’s opposition to alcohol and “dedicated to them and their concerns”. With this, Bihar becomes the fourth state to impose total prohibition. The other three are Gujarat, Nagaland, and parts of Manipur. Kerala is also a recent entrant to this club, though it has opted for a phased total prohibition to be implemented over ten years.
However, the prohibition experiment in India does not provide enough evidence to suggest that it is effective in curbing alcohol abuse.
Dry only in name
The birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, Gujarat, has had a total ban on alcohol since 1960, but those who live and visit the state find that prohibition is just on paper. In reality, the sale and nor consumption of alcohol continues freely. Alcohol is reportedly smuggled into Gujarat from the neighbouring states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and also from the Union Territories of Daman and Diu. Moreover, there are alcohol permits for both domestic as well as foreign travellers.
For those who can afford it, IFLM is available at higher prices. For the poor, there is hooch, which is either surreptitiously prepared in the state, or smuggled from outside. In 2009, the state was rocked by a hooch tragedy, which claimed 136 lives. Following this, the state government pushed for death penalty for those involved in spurious liquor cases. Tragedies such as these tend to hit the poorest – ironically, the very constituency that prohibition seeks to protect – the most.
In case of a small state like Nagaland, the façade of prohibition also means missing out on the revenue generation, which it can ill afford. The state, which has been officially dry since 1989, has failed spectacularly in stopping the flow of alcohol. Reports suggest that smuggling from the neighbouring states of Assam has meant that the state is anything but ‘dry’. Its Chief Minister T R Zeliand described his state as the “wettest dry state” because of rampant illegal sale. Discussions have been initiated in the state on the lifting of the ban.
Evidence suggests a dry state is either a myth or a smokescreen for an underground system of procuring liquor, in which the stakeholders are many, including the police, bureaucracy and netas.
No curb in alcoholism, but massive loss of revenue
Prohibition comes across as all the more dubious as a measure when one keeps in mind that in addition to not curbing the consumption of alcohol, it can also lead to a massive loss of revenue. In 2015, Mizoram lifted its 18-year-old ban on sale and consumption of alcohol. Both IMFL and hooch were easily available in the outskirtsor in neighbouring Myanmar during the prohibition, according to reports.
A study group conducted a survey in 2011 and found that during the total prohibition period, there was actually a steep rise in the number of alcohol-related liver disease and psychiatric referrals for alcoholism. Similar is the experience in Manipur, where prohibitions by both the state government and the Revolutionary People’s Front (a political wing of the armed separatist group, People’s Liberation Army) failed to put a curb on the flow of alcohol in the state. Both country liquor and IFML can be easily sourced in the state, as reported here.
Manipur is trying to lift prohibition, following in the footsteps of Mizoram. Andhra Pradesh and Haryana have had similar experiences in the past due to smuggling from neighbouring states, leading to leakage of revenues. Both states eventually did away with prohibition. Andhra Pradesh inherited total prohibition from the erstwhile Madras State, which had imposed it way back in 1952, and it did away with it in 1997. Haryana imposed prohibition in 1996, only to withdraw it in 1998.
Bihar’s state of affairs
The root of the popular stir for prohibition lies in Bihar government’s decision to liberalise the excise policy in 2007. Kumar was then Chief Minister, and his party was in alliance with the BJP, which backed the move. Under the new policy, the government had given licenses to about 6000 shops, and mandated that there would be a liquor shop for every 13,500 people. The rationale behind it was that the move would help curb the menace of illegal liquor trade. This caused the number of liquor shops to mushroom.
However, the move was resented in some areas, as it led to alcohol abuse. It was in Rohtas district, where the womenfolk organised themselves in 2013, forming a front called Pragatisheel Mahila Sangh, under the leadership of a local woman named Sunita Singh. The women chose NOTA as their mode of protest, and forced the system to take note and act.
Bihar shares borders with West Bengal, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal. If it seriously wants to enforce prohibition, the state will have to check against liquor smuggled into from these places. This report here shows how Bihar going dry has meant a “revenue shower” for neighbouring Jharkhand. The prohibition is estimated to cost the state an annual loss of revenue of Rs 4,000 crore.
Further, given the law and order situation in the state, there are fears that the move will give rise to new liquor mafias in the state, of course, not without political patronage. While the total prohibition maybe rooted in the noblest of intentions, examples from different state’s experiences in India have shown that it is an uphill task. Add to that the fact that Biharis craving alcohol are going so far as to eat soap in an effort to get high, and prohibition comes across as a sobering thought.