No doubt the Nitish Kumar government in the state is to be blamed for this utter failure to check such loss of lives even five years and a half after the imposition of prohibition. But there is more to it than meets the eye, observes Soroor Ahmed

On the eve of Diwali several dozen people – the toll may be higher – died in Bihar’s West Champaran and Gopalganj districts after consuming spurious liquor. A week later, during Chhath, half a dozen people perished in the similar manner in Muzaffarpur district. These are not isolated incidents, but regular phenomena in the state where, at least on paper, manufacture, distribution and sale of liquor were banned in April 2016.

The number of such tragedies increases during festivals or election seasons. Rural local bodies’ elections are going on in Bihar and the villages wherefrom these deaths were reported recently are going to poll later this month.

No doubt the Nitish Kumar government in the state is to be blamed for this utter failure to check such loss of lives even five years and a half after the imposition of prohibition.

But there is more to it than meets the eye. To know the flip-flop of the present Bihar government one needs to go back to the year 2000 when mineral-rich Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar on November 15. As Bihar used to depend heavily on revenue from this industrial half, the creation of the new state led to huge loss of resources. The Bihar Assembly had unanimously passed a resolution on the eve of the bifurcation of the state, demanding a package of Rs 1.79 lakh crore as compensation. But the then Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, in which Nitish Kumar was a prominent minister, paid no heed to this demand.

Ironically, this was the attitude of the Centre when in the Bihar Assembly the legislators of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Nitish Kumar’s own outfit, the Samta Party, that is the earlier version of the Janata Dal-United, also supported the resolution.

Forced by the circumstances, the then Rabri Devi government in Bihar imposed new taxes to increase the revenue. The leaders of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) were always critical of it, though they were fully aware that the state government had really been facing hard times.

However, the situation improved somewhat after the fall of the Vajpayee government which lost the Lok Sabha election on May 13, 2004. RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav became the railway minister and now late Raghuvansh Prasad Singh the rural development minister in the Manmohan Singh government. They both brought projects worth thousands of crores to their home state. Bihar got special attention under the Backward Region Grant Fund. What was deliberately ignored by the media is that Bihar’s GDP started growing by 11 per cent from 2004-05, that is well before Nitish Kumar took over on November 24, 2005.

Yet when the latter became the chief minister, he soon realised the tight position of Bihar’s economy. As imposing fresh taxes on petrol and diesel as well as excise duty on liquor are the best way adopted by various governments – be it at the Centre or state –  to earn quick revenue, the Nitish Kumar government came up with New Excise Policy on July 1, 2007.

Incidentally, a woman Sudha Srivastava was the excise minister of Bihar and a devout and bearded Muslim, Amir Subhani, was made the excise commissioner. This was a conscious decision of the chief minister as he was well aware that both of them would not interfere and that he himself would look into the matter.

The state’s revenue increased as there was mushroom growth of liquor shops all over Bihar. Not to speak of urban pockets, even villages did not remain unaffected. In many panchayats, two or three liquor kiosks came up in no time.

Later, Nitish appointed Jamshed Ashraf, then the chairman of the Bihar Haj Committee, as the excise minister. Against Nitish’s liking, Jamshed started asserting in the department. He reportedly tried to check the liquor scam worth hundreds of crores. On Makar Sankranti Day, January 14, 2010, Jamshed handed over a letter to Nitish in which he sought inquiry into the liquor scam.

Initially, Nitish tried to ignore his demand. But when a few days later a Hindi daily, Dainik Jagran, carried Jamshed’s letter on the first page, Nitish immediately sacked him from the post of minister. And thus the hurdle was removed.

The spread of booze culture continued to have devastating social and health-related impacts, but the state government was least concerned about them as the sale of liquor was providing huge revenue for it. It was repeatedly claiming that it was through the money thus earned, it has been undertaking developmental projects.

This is very much similar to the Arvind Kejriwal government’s policy to subsidise electricity and water bills in Delhi, but increase the revenue by promoting the sale of liquor – now it can be delivered at homes.

Anyway, the media then paid little attention when people used to die in liquor tragedy as Nitish was their darling. This was notwithstanding the fact that women groups and other social outfits would often raise the issue of the detrimental impact of the policy.

Notwithstanding the absurd and baseless propaganda of improved law and order condition, the truth was that the crime shot up and domestic violence increased manifold during the heydays of self-claimed susashan (good governance). The tragedy was that as most of the crimes were committed within the four-walls of the house, womenfolk would not dare to lodge a case in the police against the drunkard perpetrator as he happens to be a family member.

At the same time the number of women who got addicted to liquor increased too.

The situation reached to such a pass that on July 9, 2015 chief minister Nitish Kumar was literally compelled by the protesting women members of the self-help group in Patna to promise that he would impose prohibition after he was elected to power again in the election to be held later the same year.

Nitish returned to power on November 8, 2015 in alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress. Once again he made Abdul Jalil Mastan, a seasoned Congress MLA from the Muslim community, as his excise minister. This time the objective was just the opposite – put a total ban on liquor.

On April 1, 2016 prohibition was imposed in the state. This time the media turned hostile and started questioning the state government as to wherefrom would it muster about 17 per cent loss of revenue, which used to come in the form of excise duty.

Some of the posers raised by the media were genuine. At the same time the truth is also that many journalists turned against him as they themselves were hit by the decision to make Bihar liquor-free.

Anyway the truth is that Nitish’s decision to impose ban failed yet it is also a fact that there was some decline in the public display of drinking, especially during marriages, parties, other gatherings, etc. But this does not mean that the sale of liquor really came down. As Nitish tried to impose prohibition only after promoting the rampant sale of liquor for about a decade, it was really difficult to reverse the trend.

It is field day for the liquor mafia who are busy in smuggling business worth thousands of crores from neighbouring states and Nepal. Mark it, Gopalganj is on the border of Uttar Pradesh whereas West Champaran common boundary with both UP and Nepal.

The big fish – many of them the leaders of his own party Janata Dal-United and the BJP – would survive but those belonging to the weaker section of the society would be caught and punished. In the initial couple of years some 1.25 lakh people, mostly hailing from Dalit and Extremely Backward Castes, were thrown into jail. But the sale of liquor continued to flourish with the help of police and excise department officials and personnel.

Soon cases of deaths after consuming spurious liquor started coming from dry Bihar. But such incidents would be hushed up by the government machinery as well as the family members of the deceased obviously because on paper there is prohibition in the state.

Now those demanding the removal of prohibition argue that the state suffered huge loss of revenue and its tourism industry was greatly affected yet the Nitish government did not succeed in its objective. They also claim that Nitish Kumar sent a wrong message to industrialists and investors as in the first few years he invited a number of foreign liquor manufacturing firms and one fine morning in 2016 asked all of them to pack their bags and go.

Five years and a half later Nitish Kumar is really in a bind. The truth is that he is paying the price for the follies committed in the initial years when he promoted the liquor culture and let the mafia grow. Now he wants to see the result just because he had changed the gear.

Needless to say he has now acquired the sobriquet ‘paltu-ram’.

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