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Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019

Dry Bihar risks lives for its daily fix

The death of four people in the state’s Rohtas district on Saturday after drinking illicit alcohol highlights the challenge the Nitish Kumar government faces in stemming the flow of liquor.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2017 09:35 IST
Arun Kumar and Avinash Kumar
Arun Kumar and Avinash Kumar
Hindustan Times, Patna
Police personnel show packets of Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) and country liquor seized in Aurangabad district of Bihar.
Police personnel show packets of Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) and country liquor seized in Aurangabad district of Bihar.(HT File Photo)

A dry Bihar is a desperate Bihar, willing to risk life for a daily fix of liquor.

The death of four people in the state’s Rohtas district on Saturday after drinking illicit alcohol, once again highlights the challenge the Nitish Kumar government faces in stemming the flow of liquor. The sale of was first banned on April 1, 2016 and the government enforced a fresh law on October 2 that year after the Patna high court struck down the previous version.

Eighteen months, 90,000 arrests, 77,000 FIRs and nearly 500,000 raids later, Bihar is far from liquor-free. For the record, 95% of the arrested people are out on bail.

The Rohtas hooch tragedy is the second since the ban on sale and consumption of liquor kicked in. Eighteen people had died in Gopalganj in August 2016.

Possession means the possession by any family or member of that family and includes the knowledge of possession
Penalty for unlawful import, export, transport, manufacture, possession, sale, etc. — Imprisonment for a term not less than 10 years, which may extend to imprisonment for life. Fine shall not be less than Rs 1 lakh extendable to Rs 10 lakh
If liquor is found, consumed, manufactured, sold or distributed inside any premises or premises or house, it shall be presumed that all the adults above the age of 18 have the knowledge about it, unless proved otherwise
The penalty for mixing noxious substances with liquor causing death: Death sentence or life imprisonment besides fine, which shall not be less than Rs 5 lakh but which may extend to Rs 10 lakh
10-year imprisonment, which may extend to imprisonment for life and a fine of up to Rs 10 lakh
The penalty for the consumption of liquor — 5-10 years, which shall be extended up to life imprisonment with a fine of up to Rs 10 lakh.

The two tragedies have blown the lid off the parallel economy that thrives in a state where smuggling of foreign and India-made liquor is rampant. Seizure of truckloads of alcohol is reported regularly in the media.

When Kumar banned liquor in Bihar he was fulfilling a poll promise he made to women, who have believed to have voted for him in large numbers.

Since then he has changed political partners but remains steadfast in his support to the liquor ban.

Kumar has dismissed criticism as the whim of an elitist and urban mind and often cites Mahatma Gandhi’s statement that drinking “is more a disease than a vice”.

The “disease” has Bihar in its grip and every day innovative ways are being found to get around the ban, called draconian by critics, which included the BJP but that was before Kumar joined hands with it.

The 2016 prohibition act makes drinking or even possessing liquor a bigger offence than several heinous crimes.

In the initial days of the ban, several bridegrooms enjoying a drink found themselves in jails instead of marriage halls. Lawmakers, soldiers — even those just passing through Bihar — doctors, businessmen, policemen and teachers, all got a taste of the prohibition law.

Former ally and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad says prohibition is a big failure.

“Liquor is home delivered. Those who can afford it, get it at their doorsteps. Those who can’t turn to spurious liquor,” he said on Sunday.

Bihar home secretary Amir Subhani, who is in charge of the department of excise and prohibition, told HT that police and excise officials were going after those flouting the ban.

“We are trying our best but criminals will always try to commit a crime. Our job is to catch them,” he said, denying liquor smuggling had gone up.

Innovative ways

When there is demand, there is supply. And bootleggers are coming up with new tricks to keep the booze flowing. It is worth the money — a liquor bottle command three to four times the price it costs in the neighbouring states.

Chassis of scooters, leather padding in cars and covers of spare wheels — liquor bottles have been recovered from everywhere.

Police have also confiscated white alcohol-filled jerrycans from trains. These are usually used for carrying water from the Ganga considered holy by Hindus.

Liquor has been found inside cooking gas cylinders with a specially designed detachable base or hidden in trucks along with grocery items.

“There are specially designed boxes attached to a trucks underbelly to carry liquor. We found liquor in refrigerator consignments. Bottles were hidden in shelves inside the packages,” said a police officer.

Bootleggers have even hidden liquor stocks in ponds, wells, ditches and even toilets, he said. The contraband is shipped in parcel vans of trains, including the premier Rajdhani Express.

“It has also been found that dumping of liquor stocks is often done in Maoist-affected or disturbed areas, which also points to connivance of extremists,” said another police officer.

Home delivery

Liquor is readily available, provided you are willing to pay a price.

“It is delivered right at the doorstep by unsuspecting kids and women, who are paid Rs 300-400 an assignment for the risk involved,” said a Patna-based man, a regular of the home-delivery facility.

Last month, a boy was shot at and wounded in Begusarai district when he refused to carry liquor bottles.

In some towns, chemists take orders, but only from trusted clients. “Dawai milega (Is the medicine available)?” is the code, which keeps changing to stay ahead of the authorities.

“First, the home address is confirmed. Then the delivery is made so that there is minimum risk and no trap. No stranger is entertained,” said another buyer, adding there is no bargaining.

Patna senior superintendent of police Manu Maharaj confirmed the use of couriers, mostly young boys from poor families. “We must have nabbed around 100 school and college-going students, who were found carrying liquor bottles in bags,” he said.

Thousands arrested

While more than 90,000 people have been arrested, police and excise officials continue to seize consignments coming from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Haryana and West Bengal.

“Nobody has data about how much liquor sneaks into the state. Anything that comes to our knowledge is acted upon,” home secretary Subhani said.

During a review on the first anniversary of the prohibition, the chief minister admitted stopping the smuggling from other states was a challenge and asked officials to get tough.

“Police as well as excise officials are vigilant, but some habitual offenders don’t give up. We are now targeting the big fish,” a senior officer said, citing the provisions about confiscation of seized property and capital punishment in case of deaths from hooch.

Police acted against its own men to make prohibition a success. Twenty-three policemen were sacked and 220 suspended for dereliction of duty, additional director general of police (headquarters) SK Singhal said.

Easy bail

The law is strict and punishment harsh but getting bail is not difficult.

More than 90,000 people were arrested in 18 months but barely 3,500 people are in jail.

“While the capacity of all prisons in Bihar is 38,000, the number of all inmates is just around 30,000. So, those in jail for violation of the prohibition law may come to around 10% of the total,” inspector general (prisons) Anand Kishore said.

Courts are overworked and taking on the additional load of prohibition cases is not easy.

“To tell you frankly, the law is non-implementable,” senior advocate Vinod Kanth said. Slapping all kinds of charges under the Indian Penal Code and the excise act for carrying a bottle or downing a few pegs was strange, he said.

According to a judicial officer, the government set up special courts in each district for cases related to the liquor ban, but it isn’t effective. “They have to see regular trials as well as prohibition cases, which makes it difficult,” he said.

A senior police officer admitted that the rate of conviction was very poor, as arresting people for possessing liquor was easy but proving it difficult.

Another officer said district police chiefs had set recovery and arrest targets for police stations along national highways, which lead to highhandedness.

In May, seven excise department officials were sacked for extorting money from a Punjab-based businessman, Satnam Singh.

Social analyst Shaibal Gupta says Kumar’s caste and class neutral agenda might help him politically but it was the social advantage of prohibition that was at the root of the ban.

Kumar says the poor who used to fritter away hard-earned money on liquor were now spending it on children’s education and family.

But the Rohtas tragedy is a rude reminder that Bihar is far from kicking the bottle.

First Published: Oct 31, 2017 07:34 IST