Victims and beneficiaries of Bihar prohibition law live cheek by jowl; those who continue liquor trade blame lack of jobs

Umesh Kumar Ray | Mar 11, 2019 | 7 min read



By Umesh Kumar Ray

This is a tale of two women, in two nearby villages. It is a tale of hope, and a tale of despair as told by these women. It is also a tale of prohibition, its few successes and many failures, as experienced in the once prosperous weaving centre that is the Jehanabad Lok Sabha constituency.

We meet 30-year-old Ranti Devi as she is about to leave the yellow coloured Anganwadi kendra in Dharnai village, about 30 km from the Jehanabad railway station. “Prohibition has helped us a lot as earlier my father-in-law Saheb Manjhi would spend all the money he earned on liquor,” she said.

Just 25 kms away is Ratni village, which was among half a dozen villages mass penalised for making, selling and consuming country made (Mahua Daaru) liquor. Mahadalit tola, part of  Dharnai village has 250 odd families belonging to the lower caste Musahar and Paasi communities, while Ratni village has 50 Musahar families, who brew the Mahua Daaru and live apart in their own section named Ratni Musahari.

Ranti Devi in Dharani said, “we don’t have land, my father-in-law is a daily wage labourer. While earlier his contribution to the family was zero paise, he now gives us Rs.400 from his earnings. Earlier we used to eat rice without vegetables and bread with salt only. Now we spend fifty rupees daily on green vegetables. This is the benefit of prohibition.”

But the family of 70-year-old landless labourer Aata Manjhi of Ratni village is a tale of despair. He has been arrested nine times since the prohibition act came into force in April, 2016. His wife Srikanti Devi is vocal in her opposition of the liquor ban and its ardent sponsor, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.  “I took loans and sometimes worked at brick chimney and construction sites to get money for bail and family expenses”, said Srikanti Devi.

Ranti Devi, of the Manjhi community with four daughters, is intermediate pass, and in 2008 married ninth pass Jogender Manjhi whom she helped study further by working at the Anganwadi Kendra. This year her husband graduated with first division. “Had my father-in-law not quit liquor, it would have been difficult to manage the family”.

Srikanti Devi, a mother of two boys and three girls estimates her expenditure since prohibition came into effect at three to four lakh rupees. “Whenever my husband is arrested, we have to spend five to six thousand rupees on travelling expenses, lawyers’ fees etc,” said Srikanti Devi. To meet the expenses, she was forced to sell four of her precious goats for Rs 10,000-15000. “Money was not sufficient as I have nine members in my family. I had planned to get my sons appear in matriculation exam but where we will get money from?”

Many of her community also allege that they are often falsely implicated, like 70-year-old Dilchan Manjhi of Ratni Village. “My son Sufi Manjhi (25) was resting when on February 17 policemen came and picked him up,” said Dischan. "They falsely showed that Sufi had three litres of liquor in his possession when he did not have a single drop". The local police could not be contacted for their comments.

The Jehanabad constituency has 30 per cent Dalits with upper caste numbering 12 to 15 per cent. This constituency has witnessed some of Bihar’s bloodiest class struggle between the upper castes' private armies and the Maoist-backed Dalits. Today, Jehanabad is a source of cheap daily wage labourer as most Dalits are landless. Many Dalit labourers migrate to Punjab, Gujarat, Delhi and other states as farm and construction labour.

Among the Dalits, the state’s 2.2 million Musahars, are the worst off. Which forced the community to get into the Mahua Daaru (with Gud, jaggery) making business for more than two decades. And faced the brunt of the harsh penalties of the prohibition law. Yet, barely 3.5 kms from Ratni village is Pahari Bigha village where, despite the anti liquor crackdown, the Musahars continue to make and sell Mahua Daaru and have enough reasons to justify their actions.

Hear the tale of 80-year-old Phoola Devi on how brewing Mahua Daaru saved her and her family when her husband died 15 years ago. Busy preparing dinner for the family, Phoola Devi recalled how she had no money to look after her three children. “I saw some people making Mahua Daaru and in order to survive I too started making it.” Phoola Devi says. “The earning from Mahua Daaru enabled me to marry my three daughters.” She recalled the police crackdown saying that she explained to the police that until the government provided her and others like her other means of income, she will not stop making Mahua Daaru. 

Other landless villagers who are involved in the Mahua Daaru business expressed the same sentiment. Their problems were compounded when, after the liquor ban, the price of raw Mahua increased from Rs. 25-30 per kilogram to Rs. 100-125. But they persevere as the demand for their liquor is huge.

The irony here is that the state government is spending more money on enforcing prohibition than before. According to CAG reports tabled in the Bihar assembly, excise department expenditure increased by Rs 41 crore in 2016-2017, as compared to the previous year.

Responding to the Masuhar’s arguments, the state government launched the Satat Jivikoparjan Yojna for affected families of mahua makers two years after promulgating the prohibition law. The chief minister, in August 5 last year, also announced financial help to the enable them to do other business. According to Secretariat Department Principal Secretary Arun Kumar Singh, those who used to make country liquor and Taari, will benefit from this scheme which has a budget of Rs. 840 crore over the next three years. But I could not find a single beneficiary of this scheme in the three villages I visited.

The fact is even as the ruling politicians hail the success of prohibition, the illegal business of country liquor and Indian made foreign liquor’s is on the rise. According to excise and prohibition department officials, since prohibition was introduced, 16 lakh litres of India Made Foreign Liquor and nine lakh litres of country made liquor had been seized and more than 1.4 lakh police cases registered.

The law itself has undergone many changes since Nitish Kumar announced on April 5 that "sale (and consumption) of any type of alcohol in hotels, bars, clubs and any other place will be illegal from today onwards." The Bihar high court declared the law illegal a few months later, while the Supreme Court subsequently stayed the High Court’s verdict.

Meanwhile, the Nitish Government toned down its initial draconian punishment provisions which decreed five to ten years in prison and fines of one lakh rupees on liquor consumption and bootleggers and liquor makers. Over 1.61 lakh persons were arrested under this law, which was amended in 2018, primarily under electoral compulsions. The amendment reduced punishment for first time offenders to Rs.50,000 fine or three months jail. But second time offenders faced a five-year jail term and Rs. 1 lakh fine. The earlier provision of seizure of property where liquor was found and mass punishment were also done away with. It was only recently that the High Court decreed that persons arrested before the amendment came into force would be tried under the amended act, though 90 per cent of cases under the earlier law are yet to go to trial.

Interestingly, Bihar had introduced total prohibition in 1977-78 under Karpoori Thakur which proved a total failure, as it had in other states like Andhra Pradesh, Mizoram and Tamil Nadu who all subsequently repealed prohibition.

Now, as parties prepare for the Lok Sabha elections, the Jehanabad seat, currently represented by first time MLA Arun Kumar of RLSP will find prohibition again being an important poll plank as Nitish Kumar never misses the opportunity to project the ban as a grand success, even as Arun Kumar counters Nitish’s counters with “prohibition has completely failed and will go against NDA”.

As I left Pahari Bigha, local community leader Ramashish Manjhi repeated what others in the village had said: “The government should provide employment. If it does no person will make liquor in my Tola".


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