Twenty-two-year-old Jitendra Kumar is furious. An unemployed English graduate in Bihar’s Nalanda district, he says his family is living in terror since the state government slapped a fine on the village for violating a strict liquor prohibition law.
“People are being picked up on mere suspicion. The village has become a target,” he says.
Jitendra is one of many people in Kailashpur village who are angry with the new Bihar Prohibition and Excise Bill that allows families or entire villages to be penalised for violating the law – a provision that activists have called draconian and unfair towards the poor.
On Tuesday, the local administration warned that every household will be fined Rs 5,000 because of the recovery of hundreds of country-made liquor bottles from the area.
This has angered local residents, who say the state government is behaving like the British colonial rulers, punishing people without proof.
“Why should we pay a penalty when we have done no wrong? You see for yourself what we have in our house?” asks a visibly upset Rashmuni Devi, 42.
Rashmi, 19, joins her instantly. “We will never pay fine, as we don’t have money. We don’t even know where liquor was found, but for the last three days policemen are coming to warn us. They are taking pictures,” she goes on.
Most others in the Mahadalit settlement in the village are equally dismayed and say they don’t have the money to pay fines as they barely make a living working in brick kilns and fields. ““Why should poor people pay for the follies of others?” asks Munna Mochi, 65.
They say the liquor business in the area has stopped since the law kicked in but isolated instances of liquor drinking surface. “There is no vacancy either from the Centre or the state. Will it look good if the youth start taking recourse to loot and burglary?” Jitendra asks.
Other village youth say it won’t be easy to move away from the decades-long liquor business that was patronized by the Bihar government till now. “How do they expect everyone to turn saint suddenly?” Jitendra asks.
Kailashpur -- – in chief minister Nitish Kumar’s home district -- is only one among scores of villages spread across the state facing the threat of collective fines. Former RJD MP Raaghuvansh Prasad Singh also called for review of the law, saying forced implementation is wrong. RJD is the senior partner in the ruling Grand Alliance administration.
But mounting anger across the state hasn’t affected Nitish, who has stuck by what originally was a poll promise.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, he called the new law “transformational” and alleged vested interests were out to scuttle it. He said the collective punishment provision was necessary for the law’s implementation.
“The bill protects women of the household from a male adult who wishes to pin the blame away from him to any other member of family,” he wrote.
But people from Kailashpur don’t agree. Munna says it’s the responsibility of the police to identify culprits, not villagers. “They ask us to report, knowing little that if we do so, we will no more be able to survive here,” says the physically-challenged person.
The village head, Rinku Devi, also feels the collective fine is a harsh decision on the poor. “Officials should investigate and fix accountability. I have spoken about it with the officials, but that is all I can do,” she says.
But there is some appreciation from the women, mostly well-off and dominant caste, who say the unruliness of drunk men has stopped. “Those who would have died in five-six years would now live longer,” says Janaki Devi, 68.
Nalanda district magistrate Thyagrajan SM says notices have not yet been served in Kailashpur but the process is on. “We carried out raids in the village thrice and found liquor every time. We will issue notices and hope it will work as a deterrent. We have also increased vigil,” he adds.
He says many villagers have backed the administration. “They say they will not support offenders,” he added.
“The idea is to create an effective deterrent, not just collect fine. The collectors are paying special focus on vulnerable pockets known for liquor brewing,” says excise department principal secretary KK Pathak.