This is the last of a two-part series on the illegal liquor trade.
On the evening of February 24, a field in rural Bihar’s Dobhi block appeared like a market for drunks.
When I reached the spot, a police patrol vehicle crossed the field. However, this didn’t disrupt Dheerja Pul Bazaar – a weekly booze market shockingly functional in the dry state.
As the bazaar began to wrap up, through Dobhi resident Nirala, I asked a man serving liquor to customers from plastic container: “Don’t you fear being arrested? Alcohol consumption and sale is illegal in Bihar since April, 2016.” He chuckled and replied, “The police just took a round of the field and left.”
Sparsely populated Dobhi is in Gaya district. This account indicates that alcohol prohibition is in a sorry state in rural Bihar.
Where reports of social upliftment from the liquor ban appeared true with hooligan activities being a rare sight across Bihar this Holi, testimonies of unchecked expansion of illegal liquor markets demonstrate a mass policy failure.
A thriving black market
In Gurpa village station under Fatehpur block, Gaya, an account of bootleggers undertaking huge risks was narrated by Manoj Kumar, a resident of Dhanbad, Jharkhand.
Manoj believes the law is being blown to bits having witnessed several illicit activities aboard the Asansol-Gaya passenger train in January. “At the halts of Gurpa and Jadugram, I saw groups of male passengers getting down without their luggage. Since these are small villages, I was curious to know the reason. On enquiring, I saw two women selling country liquor to them in glasses,” he said.
In Manoj’s words, a co-passenger told him the tribal population in these villages still produces liquor in abundance. “After crossing both stations, the entire train smelled of liquor.”
The illegal trade has spread to vast proportions in Champaran district. Country liquor and even liquor pouches have been made available by the bootlegging nexus here.
Pouches with 250 ml liquor were rampantly sold at dirt cheap prices – Rs 10 each – across Bihar after the liquor policy was extensively liberalised. During this period, before the enforcement of prohibition, there were 6,000 liquor outlets in Bihar.
“Unlike the days when cheap liquor sold like hotcakes in Bihar, liquor pouches are now sold in limited quantity. They are available only in a few areas at rates as high as Rs 150-200 per pouch,” said Rajkumar, an inhabitant of Khadda village.
With the exchange of black money for the illicit trade, business is lucrative for small bootleggers.
Girdhari Ram, an activist, made a comment on women bootleggers. “It’s ironical that many tribal women function as bootleggers in a state where the law was an outcome of women protests against alcoholism. But this isn’t a common scenario. These are women from a section of society lured into bootlegging. They slip liquor pouches into vegetable baskets and sell them with the help of locals,” he said.
In Champaran, illicit liquor production is carried out in forest areas, on lands washed off by the River Gandak. Mahua, Mahua Meetha and Chulhai are a few varieties of traditionally brewed liquor produced by small bootleggers in Bihar.
Recently, when one such liquor production adda was raided, the women bootleggers who were caught red handed injured the cops with bricks and fled. The incident took place in Sirisiya village, West Champaran. “Some tribal communities in these regions surrounded by forests carry out bootlegging in organised groups. We villagers even fear to report them to the police because if they are let off, the consequences for us could be life threatening,” said a Sirisiya villager pleading anonymity.
This was not a one-off case in the region.
Other Sirisiya residents said the cops don’t admit these cases in front of media persons because of shame and fear of dire consequences.
However, the uninterrupted black market in this region was disturbed by a raid two months ago. A police team headed by West Champaran SP Jayant Kant cracked down at Bettiah bus stand area on February 6. A total 110 cartons of IMFL were seized and five liquor smugglers were arrested.
Liquor home delivery has also started in Bihar villages. “After having stopped drinking for long, the addicts in our village have found ways to get alcohol. A duo namely Bhedi Chamar and Bilindar Chamar is always ready to take huge risks to home deliver liquor to them,” said residents of Karwandia village in Rohtas district.
Liquor tourists to Nepal
The region of Bihar at the Indo-Nepal border, including Valmiki Nagar village, often sees people moving across the national border. The reason? To travel to neighbouring Nepal to drink.
Interestingly, sarais are mushrooming on the other side of the border to serve liquor to consumers from Bihar. “These customers generally stay at the sarais in Nepal at night and return home by auto when they are sober,” said Deependra Bajpayee, a Champaran school headmaster.
The sight of men lying drunk on the ground at the Indo-Nepal border area is an eyesore. “Our villagers would be seen crossing the bridge connecting us to Nepal every day in numbers. The law is made a mockery of in this part,” said Anwarul Hassan, a bus conductor from Valmiki Nagar. Meanwhile, Hassan’s friend passed a remark, “3 baje saanjh ke o paar/3 baje bhore ee paar (They set off for the other side (Nepal) by dusk, return home by dawn.)”
With alcohol being legal in Bihar’s bordering states Jharkhand, UP, West Bengal and in Nepal as well, regulating its transportation into Bihar remains a challenge.
The prohibition challenge
When asked about tackling black money circulation in the liquor trade, Bihar DGP Gupteshwar Pandey, on February 23, told me, “I have met senior police officers today in Patna and we have zeroed on a list of 500 suspects, which includes bootleggers and money launderers. [They] will be constantly under police surveillance.”
The state government had received criticism alleging faulty implementation when a hooch tragedy killed four in Rohtas in October, 2017. Before this, Bihar police were widely trolled for claiming rats finished off over nine-lakh litres alcohol seized from offenders. In the state where the maintenance of law and order has been a perennial issue, such cases seem never ending.
It could be argued that under Prohibition, government expenditure has increased manifold to facilitate police raids, surveillances and liquor destruction, while it suffers revenue losses. Ironically, the ones making maximum financial gains in the present scenario are those who violate the law. At present, they get to sell liquor up to triple its MRP and don’t even have to pay taxes.
This means bootleggers can easily afford to bribe the police to clear their vehicles and allow the illegal sale of liquor. However, the fears of arrest and tarnished reputations have compelled a huge section of the population to follow the law.
Latest in its expensive arsenal to carry out surveillance are 20 canines brought from Hyderabad to detect liquor.
A CAG audit report released on November 29 had claimed Bihar government’s revenue suffered a drop of Rs 1,490 crore in 2016-17 primarily because of alcohol prohibition imposed in the state. Bihar excise department expenditure increased from Rs 49.63 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 91.96 crore in 2016-17 because of an increase in enforcement activities, the report further stated.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar, on various occasions, has denied the loss of revenue on account of prohibition. He has been asserting that the money earlier spent on liquor is now being used for better purposes which are beneficial to all.
“Like every law against murder, robbery or any other crime, prohibition law also has violators. A huge workforce of the police department is active to make total alcohol prohibition effective in Bihar. We haven’t compromised with the violations of the law and cases of public servants misusing it. Nobody will be spared,” DGP Pandey said.
The extent of police highhandedness in cases of misuse of the law is reflected from this statement of the DGP: “So far, we have punished, dismissed and suspended a total 400 police personnel in Bihar for violating or misusing prohibition law.”
The opposition in Bihar shifted the blame on to Nitish Kumar’s government.
RJD National vice-president Shivanand Tiwary said, “The police excesses and corruption in the name of alcohol prohibition law receive safeguard from the members of ruling party.”
When Bihar Excise and Prohibition Minister Bijendra Yadav was contacted, he said, those who indulge in liquor sale – from smugglers, bootleggers to a few police officers being hand in glove with them – are the bad elements.
“Misuse happens in case of every law which has come into force. Whatever good we want to achieve for Bihar’s society through alcohol prohibition is ongoing. The government is hellbent on not liberalising it. The entire society will have to come forward to spread social awareness against liquor consumption,” Yadav told me.
The power lobbies in dry Gujarat appear to have made a compromise with the multi-crore illegal liquor trade and seem comfortable with the 1,58,727 prohibition cases pending with the state courts. A reflection of this was the absence of talks on prohibition in the last Gujarat assembly elections.
Whereas the Bihar government – amid failures, loopholes in administration, liquor dispatches from across borders and political pressures leading to the law’s amendment in July, 2018 – remains determined to keep the stringent law. Prohibition is still a burning issue in the political discourse and votebank politics of Bihar.
Meanwhile, in ‘Dry Bihar’, there is no dry day in reality, despite cops saying they are losing their sleep over the battle against the bottle.
Zumbish is a Delhi-based journalist from Bihar who has previously worked with The Indian Express, The New Indian Express and Ahmedabad Mirror.