Prohibition: Challenge lies in implementation
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It is nearly impossible to successfully implement prohibition in any state. Bihar is an island, surrounded by states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Jharkhand—there is no prohibition in the adjoining states.
Bihar also has a 1,500-km-long open border with Nepal. Because of this, bootlegging, illegal trade and a parallel economy has been mushrooming in Bihar since the Nitish Kumar government banned the sale and consumption of liquor.
More than 18,000 people have been arrested and jailed. More than 300,000 litres of beer and Indian made foreign liquor have been seized so far. Despite the government’s efforts including raids, liquor is easily available in the state and a new pattern has emerged—that of home delivery.
One should also keep in mind that liquor is no longer a stigma in today’s society as compared to many years back when Karpuri Thakur and Moraji Desai enforced a liquor ban. It is consumed by the youth and the middle and upper middle classes without any associated stigmas.
No one can oppose the concept of prohibition, but it is very difficult to implement in the present situation. It has almost become impractical.
To add to this, some of the provisions of the prohibition law enacted by the Nitish Kumar government are draconian. There is a provision for imposing a collective fine on an entire village. If liquor is found at someone’s home, then every resident of that home will be held responsible. If liquor is unearthed in any premises, that property can be confiscated. Liquor consumption is a non-bailable offence with very stringent penalties and punishment. Under the law, the minimum imprisonment for violation is seven years, extendable up to 10 years. The fine can also range between Rs5 lakh and Rs10 lakh.
When the Patna high court struck down the old law, it observed that the Bihar government was trying to convert the state into a police state. But the state government came back with a new law which has now been challenged in the Supreme Court. Senior lawyer Gopal Subramaniam is arguing the case on behalf of the Bihar government.
The state’s excise department has placed advertisements in the papers seeking suggestions from the public for any changes to the laws. Normally, suggestions are given before the enactment of an act. Which government seeks suggestions after an act has been enacted? The entire handling of the liquor ban by the Nitish Kumar government has been full of shortcomings.
The implementation of the law has also had an adverse impact on the state’s finances as well as on economic activity. More than Rs4,000 crore of tax revenues are being lost by the Bihar commercial taxes department annually because of the ban on liquor.
The border is open, prompting illegal trade. The revenue is not going into the coffers of the state government. And there is no way to compensate for this revenue loss for a state like Bihar. The government has increased the tax on almost every item within the last one year. The rate of value added tax is as high as 15% now in the state. Still there is a deficit. The police machinery is also unnecessarily harassing the people.
Because of the fiscal constraints, the government has been forced to withdraw all capital incentives including subsidy for industries investing in Bihar, in the new industrial policy. Only the sop of interest subvention remains for such new investors.
The tourism business has come to a standstill. The hotel and hospitality industry has been hit. Big weddings, seminars and conferences are no longer taking place in the state. Delegates and businessmen prefer to fly in, in the morning, and leave in the evening rather than stay overnight.
But there have been some positive side effects of prohibition as well. Eve teasing and open brazen consumption of liquor have come down to some extent. Domestic violence linked to alcohol consumption, especially in poor households, is also on the wane.
Nitish Kumar has a history of going back on many of his promises. A few years back, mining was banned in Bihar by his government but it has been allowed again now.
I do not think Nitish Kumar will go back on the liquor ban in the near future as this decision was primarily taken to appease the women electorate. But it remains to be seen what will happen in the next 4 to 5 years to the liquor ban.
Sushil Kumar Modi is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party and former deputy chief minister of Bihar.
As told to Remya Nair.