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After leading the Grand Alliance to victory in the Bihar assembly elections last year, chief minister Nitish Kumar declared on 26 November that the state will go dry from 1 April 2016. Photo: PTI
After leading the Grand Alliance to victory in the Bihar assembly elections last year, chief minister Nitish Kumar declared on 26 November that the state will go dry from 1 April 2016. Photo: PTI

Bihar likely to miss its prohibition deadline

Chief secretary Anjani Kumar Singh says will take at least six more months to cover all of the state

Two months after announcing plans to ban the sale of alcohol, an election promise made to women, the Bihar government is finding it hard to enforce prohibition and is likely to miss the deadline.

Bihar chief secretary Anjani Kumar Singh said it will take the state at least six more months from now to cover all of Bihar, extending the April deadline that chief minister Nitish Kumar set himself when announcing the measure last year.

“Nitish Kumar has started an anti-liquor campaign in Bihar. At present more than 4,000 liquor shops have the licence. In the next six months, this figure of 4,000 will be brought down to 600, which means there will be just 600 shops in Bihar selling liquor—that too in just urban areas," said Singh.

Singh’s statement makes it clear that the task of enforcing prohibition in all of rural Bihar, at which point liquor sales will be confined to 600 stores in towns and cities, will only be completed in July.

The reason for the delay is that several aspects of administrative roll-out apparently need to be ironed out.

These include police coordination, cooperation with neighbouring states, and addressing the financial implications of prohibition, running into thousands of crores of rupees.

Some aspects of enforcement are imaginative.

Last week, Kumar said that the campaign will be enforced with the help of women and school and college students. “To fulfil one of his electoral promises, Nitish Kumar has decided to take help from women and young children in the age group of 14-16 years. The education department and women’s self-help groups, such as JEEViKA in Nalanda, will coordinate with these women and children," said Singh.

These children and women have been told to inform the government if and when they spot anyone selling or drinking alcohol illegally. “They will create awareness of the ill-effects of liquor and will help people to voluntarily quit its consumption. These people will work closely with women’s self-help groups and make sure there is no illegal supply," said the chief secretary.

At a pre-election public meeting in March last year, Nitish Kumar promised women that if he comes back to power in Bihar, he will ban liquor throughout the state.

After leading the Grand Alliance, comprising his party Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, to a massive victory, Kumar declared on 26 November that Bihar will go dry from 1 April.

Interestingly, this is one step taken by the Bihar government that has the support of its principal political rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But as the deadline nears, the Nitish Kumar government is not only finding it difficult to impose the ban, but it might end up missing the deadline as well.

Bihar has decided to impose the prohibition in phases. While the prohibition will be total in rural areas, 600 shops will sell Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) in urban areas till July.

These shops will be run by the Bihar State Beverages Corp. Ltd that comes under the state excise department.

The chief minister told a press conference in Patna last week that sale of IMFL will be stopped after six months and that thereafter there will be a complete ban on liquor in both rural and urban Bihar.

Another problem is that the state exchequer will take an annual hit of 5,000 crore.

“The sale of liquor overall contributes about 12% of revenue for the state. Excise collection in Bihar was 3,400 crore in 2014-15, and this year, it is expected to reach 5,000 crore. So the state’s exchequer will definitely take a big hit. Total revenue earned through tax in Bihar last year was of 25,600 crore. Out of this 3,400 crore was from sale of liquor. After this ban, Bihar will lose its revenue to neighbouring states of Jharkhand and West Bengal, as these states can set up shops on the border," said Ajay Alok, general secretary and spokesperson of Janata Dal (United).

However,the measure remains popular with the women, who turned out large numbers to vote in the assembly elections.

“It is for women that Kumar has decided to take this step. He is a man of his words and will fulfil all his electoral promises one by one," said Singh.

Another problem is the black market in alcohol that usually accompanies prohibition.

Nitish Kumar has asked Bihar director general of police P.K. Thakur to keep an eye on liquor supplies from the neighbouring states.

“Police’s duty is to enforce this decision now. Already last Saturday, 1,100 litres of liquor was seized and destroyed. About the state’s borders, we will definitely be stepping up our vigil. We will have dedicated check posts and flying squads which will act and intersect any vehicle that is suspected to be carrying liquor," said Thakur.

“Another step we are taking is to keep a check on the supply of spirit from neighbouring states. Rest of the departments are taking care too—for example, there will a sharp increase in the sale of cough syrups (which have alcohol content); that will be checked from time to time," the DGP added.

Political analysts, who feel that enforcing such a ban is difficult, are not surprised by the prospects of a missed deadline.

“Didn’t we all see this delay coming? In a place like Bihar where you will find kids drinking, it is impossible to ban liquor and I am sure Nitish Kumar realizes it," said Shashi Sharma, a political science professor at Patna University.

“Announcing a ban, according to me is a publicity stunt. If the government is able to close down all shops by 1 April, then we will be a little hopeful about this prohibition. People of Bihar are now worried about the black market that will grow after the ban. If the government cannot close down the liquor shops completely, they should at least close them down during the day. Men who consume alcohol in the day create complete ruckus at work places," Sharma added.

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