71,000 in jail over booze in Indian state

Indian excise department officers searching a vehicle for alcohol at a checkpoint in Rajauli, at the Bihar-Jharkhand interstate border, in August. Bihar state's economy has lost about US$800 million (S$1.1 billion) in annual taxes and revenues after
Indian excise department officers searching a vehicle for alcohol at a checkpoint in Rajauli, at the Bihar-Jharkhand interstate border, in August. Bihar state's economy has lost about US$800 million (S$1.1 billion) in annual taxes and revenues after the alcohol ban.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Impoverished Bihar's alcohol ban a vote winner despite gripes over its effectiveness

RAJAULI (India) • The eastern state of Bihar has India's harshest prohibition regime: At least 71,000 people have been imprisoned since last year for alcohol consumption or possession, some for up to five years.

While some bemoan the effectiveness of the ban and the police tactics used to back it, prohibition has become a vote winner in the big, poor and rough-and-ready state with 100 million people.

Now politicians in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu states have demanded or promised similar schemes.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who imposed the Bihar ban, has been praised by conservative Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"It will protect our future generations and everyone should back him," Mr Modi said in January.

Mr Kumar said in a speech last year: "It's for the poor. You can't imagine how happy this makes them. Serious crime is down. Our villages are more peaceful and women's groups say it has helped reduce domestic abuse as men don't come back drunk."

The political reasoning for the ban is simple: Mr Jhagru Mahto, a Patna taxi driver, said the law has changed his life. "I used to be an alcoholic but I quit, fearing arrest and jail after prohibition. My wife is definitely very happy and praises the government," he said.

However, Mr Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor with Caravan magazine, described such bans as "a political quick fix to a complicated problem".

"Alcoholism is a big issue in many poorer Indian households, which is why prohibition appeals to a popular base, especially women," he said.

The authorities have also been accused of giving inadequate resources to rehabilitating alcoholics. Media reports have hinted at a flourishing underground drinks network in Bihar, especially in state capital Patna, supplying anyone who can pay three or four times the market price.

While around one million litres of liquor had been seized by police since the legislation was brought in last year, local media reported that much of it has disappeared, prompting the authorities to investigate.

Officials caused consternation when they blamed rats for consuming some of the alcohol.

Last month, six men accused of selling liquor escaped from prison after their guards dozed off. The authorities were forced to deny accusations that the guards were drunk.

What is more, the alcohol hunters' limited weaponry and the sheer amount of liquor involved makes enforcement difficult.

One official told Agence France-Presse that gangs make children carry the contraband as they are less likely to be searched. Those who live close to the border often go across state lines, and even into Nepal, for drinking day trips.

Bihar's impoverished economy has lost about US$800 million (S$1.1 billion) in annual taxes and revenues after the ban.

"The revenue loss is nothing compared with all the health and social benefits because of this," Bihar's excise commissioner Aditya Kumar Das explained. "Women, especially in poorer communities, have been empowered because their men now mostly spend earnings on groceries rather than alcohol."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline '71,000 in jail over booze in Indian state'. Print Edition | Subscribe