Bihar completed one year of prohibition on April 1 this year, which significantly coincided with the centenary of Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagrah. No homage to Gandhiji would have been more eloquent that prohibition, a core Gandhian thought.
On 9 July 2015 in the State level conference on “Gram Varta”, self-help groups and women participants expressed concern over growing alcoholism in the state and asked for prohibition. In the Gram Varta itself, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar made known his intent to introduce prohibition in the state if he was returned to power in the Vidhan Sabha election. True to his pledge, on return of the Grand Alliance to power the CM announced the enforcement of prohibition in the state from 1 April 2016.
The doubt-digit decadal economic growth of the state raised rural household incomes significantly and this led to increased consumption of alcohol. There was a rise in the number of apprentice bingers who graduated to alcoholics. Alcoholism wrought injury to physical health, nutrition, domestic harmony, dignity of women and deadened individuals.
Alcohol cast its shadow on not only economically weaker sections but also on youth as revealed in the course of raids on student hostels. Women who run households suffered the most, both physical torture and financial crunch. Real time narratives pouring in through media reports, day in and day out, exposed the dark patches and viciousness of alcoholism. An inebriated father raped his daughter, another alcoholic father killed his son on his refusal to part with his tuition fees and a husband killed his wife for not parting with her savings from daily wage earnings to fetch liquor for her husband.
The spectacle of alcohol horror simmering for some time erupted into widespread people’s outrage. Women’s organisations became active and burnt liquor vends. Women refused to marry alcoholic men and deserted alcoholic husbands; a father got his son arrested for bootlegging and in some places alcoholics were fined and the amount went to noble causes. As a climax, an exceptional and unique human chain was formed on 21 January 2016 by millions of people including children, students and teachers, NGOs and civil society members to voice unstinted support to prohibition.
Prohibition changed social, ethical, economic and domestic contours and brought cheer and smiles to the lips of afflicted families as money saved on liquor got ploughed into rural and urban households for a better living. This brought about a great improvement in rural life and improved quality of living. Crime and public order statistics showed improvement.
According to the government, statistics have shown a downswing in various forms of crime such as murder, dacoity, robbery, kidnapping for ransom, serious rioting, women’s harassment, road accidents, and domestic violence ranging from 20 to 35 per cent. The downswing was more pronounced in cases of domestic violence and kidnapping for ransom compared to the statistics of 2015-16. In parallel, there was sharp increase in seizures of liquor and drugs.
Nevertheless, prohibition has many a handicap to overcome, mainly the augmentation of revenue loss to the tune of Rs. 50 billion. Some opposition leaders have voiced concern and stated that there has been a marked fall in collection of commercial taxes. On the other hand, the Chief Minister exuded confidence that total revenue generated in the financial year 2016-17 was almost the same as before and that the gap was expected to be bridged through fiscal discipline and prudence as well as new avenues of taxes.
The government presented an enhanced budget for the current financial year and the trajectory of development programmes surged unhindered to show that the financial health of the state was not worrisome. All the same, the impact of the loss of revenue on account of prohibition must be watched in coming days.
Twenty-two of Bihar’s 38 districts share porous borders with U.P., Jharkhand; many share an international border with Nepal. This offers a passage for smuggling liquor and drugs. Police and Excise agencies keep a vigil and conduct raids to stop sale and consumption. Government is committed to the enforcement of the Bihar Excise Act, a stringent law which the opposition has branded draconian. District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police have been entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing prohibition to ensure innocent persons are not harassed.
Bihar has crafted a broad and synergetic eco-system of information dissemination and reached out to civil society, women’s organisations, NGOs, teachers, self-help groups and ASHA workers to secure the flow of information related to violation of excise laws. Lot of information has poured in through those sources and has been put to use to enforce prohibition. Simultaneously, de-addiction centres have been set up at all district headquarters to provide medical care, medicines and counseling.
Penal and punitive measures are not the only route as the Government has used the social awareness route to create awareness of and diffuse knowledge about its alcoholism and prohibition policy. The Chief Minister has toured extensively to make this point.
The buzz that prohibition would crumble under the weight of revenue loss and adverse impact on hospitality industry and tourism is now silenced.
The movement has grown robust and vibrant and distinctly its crescendo has reached across the country. With dexterity Nitish Kumar welded prohibition into a national movement and gave a fiilip to it. What distinguished the enforcement of prohibition in Bihar from prohibition-bound states of Gujarat, Nagaland, Manipur (partially) and Mizoram was that it was not a mere administrative façade devoid of missionary fervor. Bihar shaped prohibition into a vibrant mission and robust movement.
To make a choice between prohibition and alcoholism was indeed a hard one. Yet Nitish Kumar went in for prohibition, sustained revenue loss and responded to the well-being and happiness of people, the essence of democracy. He did not compromise even though it was revenue earner. His resolution will ensure that he does not retreat on prohibition.
The writer is ex-Governor, Chattisgarh and Tripura and former chairman, A. N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna.