All aboard the booze express

Bihar’s prohibition has led to “liquor tourists” who visit the wetter pastures in nearby states

ByKaushik Chatterji
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All aboard the booze express
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Even as “water trains” deliver succour to the parched in drought-stricken Marathwada and Bundelkhand, there’s a thirst of another kind in another part of India. It’s been one month since total prohibition, a poll plank that propelled the Grand Alliance to victory and Nitish Kumar to 1, Anne Marg. While both government and the police claim there has been a significant drop in crime rates, critics have pointed out that there is enough evidence to show that prohibition does not work. What is guaranteed is that prohibition will deprive the state exchequer of Rs 4,000 crore annually (last year’s contribution was Rs 3,700 crore), an amount that Bihar can ill afford to lose.

Be that as it may, the state machinery is going all out in implementing the ban. Violating it attracts serious penalties – including capital punishment for manufacturers of hooch that causes death. With the state police displaying unbridled enthusiasm in conducting routine inspections and surprise raids, there’s a crackdown on the streets as well as the railway tracks, courtesy the Government Railway Police (GRP), which unlike the centrally-administered Railway Protection Force (RPF) comes under the state police.

But for those who need a drink, it’s Indian Railways to the rescue — bringing people closer to their now-illicit elixir, albeit inadvertently. Alcohol might be banned in Bihar, but across the borders in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and  even Nepal, it flows freely. Step aboard one of the many passenger trains dubbed Maikhana Express (“maikhana” is Hindustani for bar) – all it takes is a valid train ticket (and even that is optional in case you are feeling particularly adventurous).

Sure, the trip could cost a happy hour or two of your life (more if you stay far away from the border), and it doesn’t come anywhere close to drinking in the comfort of your home or your friendly neighbourhood dive. But it sure as hell beats coughing up lakhs of rupees in penalties and spending a decade of your life in a dingy, rat-infested prison cell. Just don’t make that return journey while still inebriated lest you end up behind bars for five years. A railway cop armed with a breathalyser might be waiting for you as you exit the station.

The simplest way to get a drink for locals in Bihar appears to be to take a passenger train from, say, Buxar to Mughalsarai or Gaya to Koderma. Many have purchased season tickets – reports say there has been an increase of 20 to 30% in monthly season ticket (MST) holders on the Ballia-Chhapra route.

About 500 passenger trains pass through the area that comes under the jurisdiction of GRP Patna. Of these, about 10% come equipped with pantry cars, which often double up as liquor hideouts even though they are thoroughly checked. The same goes for the on-board staff – catering crew, travel ticket examiners, guards, even drivers. Late Monday night, a deputy train superintendent aboard the New Delhi-bound Dibrugarh Rajdhani Express was arrested in Patna after he was found to be carrying two bottles of liquor. According to Jitendra Mishra, Railway Superintendent of Police (Rail SP) from Patna, “one bottle was full, but the other was half, which means he might have been drinking on the train.”

Here’s the thing, though: carrying liquor isn’t banned as per the Railways Act, strictly speaking. “Drunkenness” and “bringing dangerous goods” are, according to Sections 145 and 164, respectively. Arguably, anything that’s inflammable is dangerous, including of course alcohol. While liquor isn’t all alcohol, at what percent ABV (alcohol by volume) it becomes inflammable is a matter of debate. But you try having this “scientific discussion” with the railway police when you’re caught.

“People tend to show signs of being drunk,” said Mishra. “If we suspect them, we stop them and test them using breathalysers. As of now, we have five or six of them at major stations, but we are in the process of getting more.” As for smuggling booze in water or soft drink bottles, that isn’t a particularly bright idea. “We’re on the lookout for people who are buying bottles at, say, 300 or 400 rupees that they plan to sell here for 2,000 or 2,500,” said Mishra.

So what happens when someone is travelling from, say, Delhi to Kolkata with a sealed bottle of booze in his possession? Is such a passenger liable for prosecution? “Well, we do not check the luggage of every individual passenger on the trains,” said Mishra. “We only act in case we receive a specific input or a complaint regarding drunkenness.” Which means if you’re carrying a bottle without cracking open the seal in full view of your fellow travellers, you ought to be fine. Unless of course you are subjected to a random check while the train is passing through Bihar, in which case you’ll be in a soup.

In order not to catch the ignorant by surprise, the railway police has been spreading awareness at stations such as Mughalsarai and Koderma, the last major stopping point for most trains before entering Bihar. “Announcements are being made on megaphones reminding people that prohibition is in place,” says Mishra.

With all these checks in place and so many people eager to provide tip-offs, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that over 50,000 litres of liquor – both desi and IMFL (Indian-made Foreign Liquor) – have been seized in a month, Nearly 20,000 raids have been conducted, a substantial chunk by the GRP. “Just the other day, we received a tip-off about liquor at Gulzar Bagh station,” said Mishra. “While the people ferrying it had escaped, we found a trolley bag with 25 to 30 bottles.”

If you don’t want to go the rail way, there are also roads that can beckon you. Bear in mind, though, that they’re as risky. PN Mishra, Jitendra’s predecessor, was the Patna Rail SP when prohibition was enforced in Bihar and is now the SP of Sheohar district, in the northern part of the state. “While it is a small district of just five blocks, it sees a lot of activity,” he said, citing the recovery of two truckloads of liquor and the arrest of three individuals caught drinking in a Scorpio.

Of course, there is no crushing the indomitable spirit of the dipsomaniac. For some residents of Patna, weekend getaways now mean going to Varanasi or Deoghar – in short, crossing into a neighbouring state where drinking isn’t illegal yet. Some even organised themselves into a group called “Liquor Tourists” and created a Facebook event (at the time of writing this, the page seems to have been deleted).

With “Liquor Express”, though, a couple of entrepreneurs have reportedly gone a step further. Originally meant to take customers by car to the nearest dhaba across the state border, this venture seems to be offering a package – Rs 3,000 for a seat in an Indica from Patna to Varanasi and back, overnight stay in a budget hotel, and a certain amount of alcohol.

It’s not a bad deal, if you think about it.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @causticji

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