For the Poor, Prohibition Leaves a Trail of Destruction in Bihar

The liquor ban may be a 'prestige issue' for chief minister Nitish Kumar, but it has burdened thousands of poor people with huge debts for fighting legal battles.

A narrow lane branches out on the left side of the main road near Jehanabad railway station. After walking six to seven minutes in the lane, we come to an uneven road, lined with overflowing drains, piles of garbage and an irregular row of houses resembling coops.

The place is known as Oonti Musahar Toli. Two brothers, Painter Manjhi and Mastan Manjhi, live in the neighbourhood. Inside Painter Manjhi’s house, made of bricks plastered with mud and a khaprel roof, a shabby door opens into a room. Without a single window to let in the sunlight, the room is completely dark in broad daylight. Painter lives here with his wife and three children.

Adjacent to Painter’s house is Mastan Manjhi’s house. Unplastered, with bricks jutting out, the house comprises a single room where Mastan lives with his wife, four children, a daughter-in-law and a grandson.

Both brothers are landless. The plot on which their houses are built is all they own. Pushing carts on rent, they manage to support their respective families, often going without food when they are without work.

The Manjhi brothers were arrested by the police for liquor consumption on May 29, last year. On July 11, that is within 43 days of their arrest, the Jehanabad court sentenced them to five years in prison, besides imposing a Rs 1 lakh fine on each brother.

This was the first case of prohibition-related sentencing after the Nitish Kumar government introduced liquor ban in Bihar. The duo was charged under Section 37 (b) of the Bihar Prohibition Act and the 2016 Excise Act.

After the arrest, Mastan and Painter spent all their savings on the legal battle they were fighting. The kids’ education suffered and the family went without food.

It was only recently – a couple of months ago – that the Manjhi brothers managed to get bail from Patna High Court. “We spent nearly Rs 1 lakh fighting the case,” says Mastan. “We didn’t have that much money. We had some savings, which were used up. We borrowed loan on interest from the  money-lender and sold the pigs we were rearing to arrange for the money.”

“Pushing carts hardly fetches us Rs 200-250, out of which we have to give Rs 50 to the cart owner,” he says, adding “I don’t know whether to feed the family or repay the loan with this meagre amount.”

Chhotan Manjhi, Ram Bhajan and Painter Manjhi are facing a livelihood crisis as their finances and time are getting drained in making rounds of courts. Credit: Umesh Kumar Rai

Mastan was arrested on a scorching summer afternoon in May. “It was afternoon and the sun was shining bright. I had just returned from my daily work trip. To relax, I took a few sips (of liquor) and was resting in the house. My eyes were becoming heavy but before sleep could overtake me, the police barged in. Without any questioning, or investigation, they simply threw me in the lock up, leaving my wife and kids wailing,” he recalls.

On the day of his arrest, Painter had just returned from his day’s labour. Like Mastan, he too had a drink to relax. After resting for a while, he went out to buy paan with the Rs 5 he had borrowed from his wife. That was when the police nabbed him. Before he could figure out what was happening, Painter was arrested. The police also arrested his wife. She was later released.

“The police passed off five litres of water as liquor to arrest us,” Painter says.

He was forced to sell the pigs he had in addition to borrowing money to fight the case. With a mix of anger and pain, Painter says, “No action is taken against those who sell liquor. But people like us are falsely punished.”

Then there is also the question of how to pay the hefty fine. “Where can we arrange the money? We will stay in jail another year instead.”

The Manjhi brothers are not the only ones caught in Bihar’s prohibition dragnet.

Lallan Manjhi, a resident of Arwal district’s Khajuri village under Karpi police station, has just been released on bail after spending nearly three weeks in jail. The police arrested him from his home early in the morning.

Lallan lives in a mud house. He does not own even a sliver of land, and works as a labourer on leased land. Following his arrest, he is forced to live in debt running into thousands of rupees.

These are only a few examples from a long list of thousands of other families who have been trapped in the quagmire of the liquor ban.

On March 9, Bihar’s minister for liquor prohibition and excise department, Bijendra Prasad Yadav, informed the legislative council that 1,21,000 people had so far been arrested in liquor cases.

According to him, the prohibition and excise department registered 44,000 cases and the police 57,000.

However, out of the 1.25 lakh people arrested, the Patna high court, till this February, had sentenced only 30 people. The rest have been released on bail. In view of the recent court orders, the process of granting bail to the accused has gained some pace.

If we consider the socio-economic background of those arrested under the prohibition law, we find them to be mostly from economically poor backgrounds, lacking the monetary resources to fight a legal battle.

Murari Kumar Himanshu, a long practicing senior lawyer in the Gaya court, says, “70-80 appeals are filed daily in the Gaya court regarding liquor cases. In more than 95% cases, the accused are extremely poor.” he says, “A minimum of Rs 10,000 is spent on getting bail. If the process goes on beyond four to five days of arrest, the expenditure also shoots up”, he adds.

That more than 95% of the accused are poor does not mean that the rich are not consuming liquor, or that they are not being arrested for it. According to Himanshu, “The rich manage the case at the police station itself by paying hefty sums. Legal battles are for the poor to fight.”

Interestingly, the accused are rarely acquitted in liquor cases though there are frequent complaints of framed arrest.

Several lawyers confirm that they are handling cases where the clients claiming they were teetotallers, alleged they had been framed. Patna civil court advocate Arvind Mahuar says, “Several such cases have come to light but the police works under such pressure that it is impossible for them to investigate each matter thoroughly. In such a situation, it is possible that an innocent person ends up being falsely arrested.”

Mithilesh, 32, belonging to the community of Mahadalits in Arwal, has never touched liquor in his life. He does not even chew tobacco. Yet, twice arrested under the prohibition law, Mithilesh is now grappling with enormous debt. He runs a small grocery store, has a wife and four kids, two of whom are studying in school. The family depends on the store’s meagre income.

“I was arrested the first time last October at 3 a.m. in the morning,” says Mithilesh. “I could only get bail a month later – after spending Rs 42,000. In December, the police arrested me again – this time at around 8 p.m.  I had to spend Rs 22,000 on getting bail the second time.”

Mithilesh doesn’t drink and yet has been arrested twice. He has spent Rs 64,000 on bail and is still repaying the loans. Credit: Umesh Kr Rai

Mithilesh’s wife had to put in a lot of effort in getting him released. During the time he was in jail, Mithilesh’s children’s education suffered. “Making the rounds of the court with four young kids was traumatic for my wife,” he says.

“During the first arrest, I had to borrow Rs 30,000, with a 5% interest every month. We are still paying the installments,” he adds.

Ram Bhajan Manjhi of Arwal’s Neuna village alleges he has nothing to do with either liquor consumption or its business. Yet he found himself behind bars for three-and-a-half months.

A jutted road leads to Ram Bhajan’s mud house where he lives with his wife, children and ageing parents. His arrest has punched holes in his family’s finances. Claiming that he neither drinks nor deals in liquor, he explains, “I had gone to settle a dispute between two factions, but found myself arrested instead. As I was about to get bail in the case, a false liquor case was slapped on me. We spent Rs 50,000 on fighting the case, in addition to dealing with an accumulated loan of Rs 20,000.”

On the one hand, the liquor ban has landed thousands of poor people in jail. On the other, it has driven people to other narcotics. This trend is on the rise especially in urban areas. The growing number of patients in drug de-addiction centres bear testimony to this trend.

The number of patients at the Disha de-addiction and rehabilitation centre had fallen at the time prohibition came into effect. But now that number is rising and 80-90% of these patients are addicted to narcotics.

Rakhi Sharma, under-secretary of Patna-based Disha Rehabilitation Centre says, “After the liquor ban, we used to get around 150 patients every month at our centre. But, now the number has increased to 200 to 225 patients.”

“Shockingly, more than 80% of the patients are consuming ganja, hemp, brown sugar, whitener,  dendrite, etc. It is worrisome that most of the patients are between 16 to 25 years of age.”

Ever since prohibition, the Bihar government has been patting itself on the back for bringing in a policy that has led to a decline in cases of violence against women.

In November last year, a report was released by the state social welfare department and made public by chief minister Nitish Kumar.

The report was prepared on the basis of interaction with 2,368 women across five districts. It said while only 5% of women complained of continued physical abuse, 6% complained of being deprived of financial assistance. The report also underlined the decline in cases of domestic violence following the liquor ban.

However, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2016 tells a different story.

According to NCRB data, Bihar recorded 3,794 cases of violence against women by husbands or other in-laws in 2016, two cases more than in 2015.

There has also been an increase in the incidence of domestic violence. According to NCRB, 161 cases of domestic violence registered in 2015 went up to 171 in 2016.

When the Bihar government introduced The 2016 Prohibition and Excise Act, it included several rigorous provisions to keep people from consuming liquor for fear of punishment. Under the Act, anyone found brewing, keeping, selling or exporting liquor can be sentenced to a 10-year life sentence, in addition to a Rs 1 lakh fine. In addition, anyone found drinking is liable to a five to seven-year sentence plus a fine that could range between Rs 1- 7 lakh. The reality, however, is that people, despite the stringent provisions, are not afraid to drink. It’s now an ‘open secret’ that sale of alcohol has taken the form of an organised business in Bihar.

Earlier, liquor was only sold in authorised shops, now it is just a phone call away. All one needs to do is spend some more. Country liquor is still being brewed in rural areas.

While the business is lucrative for the liquor mafia, drinking seems to be a psychological need for the poor and manual labourers.

Consider for instance, Chhotan Manjhi, a labourer from Ramapur village of Arwal, who, after spending a fortnight in jail, has been let out on a bail sum of Rs 10,000. “I was frying meat. Had a craving to eat it with liquor. But I had no idea that the police would nab me for even wanting a drink. When the police arrested me, I had not even purchased alcohol, leave aside drink,” he says, adding “We toil hard all day long. If we don’t drink, we won’t be able to sleep. What can we do?”

When asked that if Nitish Kumar has imposed a ban on liquor and has asked people to drink milk instead, why can’t they just give it up, Tapinder Manjhi, a resident of Navana village of Arwal, who has just spent 15 days in prison for consuming alcohol, says, “We drink because we are exhausted. In Rs10 we get liquor that can do away with all the body ache. How much milk can we get for the same amount and how much fatigue will it cure?”

Shedding light on the psychological aspect of alcohol addiction, Dr Satyajit Singh, a known psychiatrist in Patna, says, “Sudden withdrawal from alcohol has serious physical and psychological repercussions. A person cannot sleep and his mental condition is disturbed. The body is fatigued. There is muscular pain…Those who consume liquor regularly can suffer from alcoholic delirium tremens.”

Delirium tremens is a condition that involves hallucinations. In this condition, the patient suffers from strange illusions and visualises imaginary situations. When the patient is in this condition, he can fail to recognise himself or his relatives.

In order to deal with such medical cases, state government doctors are given special training and every district hospital has been allotted 15 beds for such patients. But this is not widely publicised at the rural level. As a result, with the onset of withdrawal symptoms, they start drinking again.

In view of the problems triggered by the liquor ban, the opposition parties in Bihar have assured that they will change the law if voted to power.

Addressing a press conference this January, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s national vice-president Raghuvansh Prasad Singh said that the liquor ban would be relaxed once the RJD was in power. Former deputy chief mnister  and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav made a similar promise earlier.

On March 16, former chief minister and Hindustani Awam Morcha president Jitan Ram Manjhi also said that if his party was voted to power, the prohibition Act would be modified.

On the other side, the liquor ban has become a prestige issue for Nitish Kumar. He is neither ready to withdraw the law nor make any substantive amendments. Instead, he has created a new post of inspector general as a separate unit to properly implement the ban.

How far this step will prove to be beneficial remains to be seen. But, the current reality is that, thanks to the liquor ban, lives of thousands of helpless people like Painter, Mastan and Lallan are getting wasted in fighting legal battles, burdening them with huge debts.

Umesh Kumar Ray is an independent journalist. Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman