Illicit liquor weakens prohibition impact in Bihar
In December 2012, the woman of Konar, a nondescript village 12 kms from Sasaram, found that young children were drinking liquor out of pouches strewn everywhere.
The Bihar government had recently permitted liquor stores in every panchayat, angering local women who said they were regularly molested by drunken men, especially after dark.
Earlier that month, a medical student was brutally gang raped and attacked in Delhi; as news of the violent crime reached Konar, it galvanised the woman who mostly came from marginalised communities. They organised themselves into groups and started demonstrating for a ban on the sale of liquor.
“Liquor was one of the reasons for the gang rape episode in Delhi. So, after receiving numerous complaints from rural women, who were silently suffering the daily taunts, we decided to begin an agitation,” said Sunita Devi, the founder of Pragatisheel Mahila Manch (PMM), a social platform floated by women against alcoholism.
The movement started in Konar spread like wildfire across the state with thousands of women and activists holding demonstrations across the state, demanding prohibition. Women came out on the streets and thronged political meetings, with slogans against liquor. “We opposed the policy of the state government to issue liberally permission for liquor shops in every panchayat. This ruined the youth and children,” added Devi.
In the 2015 assembly election, prohibition was one of the key election issues and a central plank of chief minister Nitish Kumar. The buzz around the demand helped push up women voter turnout to 59.92%. In at least 30 assembly constituencies, the turnout of women voters crossed 70%.
After Nitish Kumar -- who was with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) at the time -- came back to power, he quickly instituted a slew of measures such as 35% reservation for women in state government jobs and panchayat bodies, and free bicycles and school dress to girls.
And then, in April 2016, Bihar banned the sale and storage of liquor, becoming the second state after Gujarat to completely impose prohibition.
Four years later as another assembly election comes around, the women of Konar are ambivalent about the impact of their movement because they feel a thriving illicit liquor mafia has undercut its achievements.
“We cannot forget the days when most of our family income was spent on liquor. That changed after prohibition. However, things are back to square one now, albeit illegally. The ban has remained only on paper and liquor smuggling is rampant,” said Phudena Devi who actively organised the anti-liquor protests in 2012 and 2013.
.Shanti Devi, of neighbouring Sitabigha village, agreed. She said the village lost 100 men to illicit liquor in the last six-seven years. “The purpose of our agitation has been lost. People are now indulging in illegal trade of liquor. Some poor children are also involved in it,” she alleged.
In four years, Bihar confiscated 41.06 lakh litres of IMFL and country made liquor, often hiring road rollers to smash bottles of liquor. But experts warned that only a small fraction of the smuggled liquor was being seized; even then, in many cases, bottles disappeared from police godowns -- in 2018,police in Kaimur district claimed that rats drank 11,000 litres of smuggled alcohol.
For Santi Devi, the liquor ban yielded mixed results. “Alcohol is easily available for anyone who wants to drink,” she said. “Still there are instances of domestic violence. But it is not as brazen as it used to be and it has helped families,” she added.
The support base of women voters, which boosted Kumar in 2015, is also sore about the economic crash and migrant crisis during the nationwide lockdown earlier this year.
“Nitish only got support from the rural women. Women belonging to middle and upper class were not with him when he announced prohibition. The rural women who backed him, have become vocal critics due to loss of jobs of their male family members during the lockdown,” said DM Diwakar, former director of AN Sinha Institute for Social Studies.
Shefali Roy, professor of political science at Patna University, said the enthusiasm of women voters -- visible in 2015 -- was missing this time. “The silent force behind Nitish Kumar’s victory was the women during the last elections. In gratification to the move of banning alcohol, women outnumbered men in the voting process. However, this was quite a transitory period. Very soon women realised their mistake, when illegal consumption and sale of alcohol made headlines,” she said.
Janata Dal (United ) spokesperson Rajeev Ranjan said women voters continued to stand with Kumar.
“Women voters began associating with Nitish Kumar ever since he began empowering them. The improvement of law and order has had its effect on them in rural areas as well. Prohibition further strengthened their faith in Nitish Kumar. We are sure, they (the women) will stand by us,” he said.
“The purpose of prohibition has not been served. Women are also disillusioned by this falsehood. They are also fed up with rampant illegal sale of liquor. So, we don’t see any gain to Nitish Kumar from this law,” said Premchandra Mishra, Congress MLC.
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