An Indian state banned alcohol. The drinking moved to nearby Nepal

A spot to buy food and alcohol in Maruwai, Nepal, on April 15, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

AT THE NEPAL-INDIA BORDER (NYTIMES) - As the afternoon heat gives way to a pleasant evening breeze, a palpable shift starts to happen in the make-up of the crowd flowing from India into Nepal across an open border.

At first, there are Nepalis, a large number of them women, returning home after a quick shopping trip for cheaper goods and groceries on the Indian side.

Two women in colourful saris split the load of a heavy bag, gripping one handle each.

A man carries a fan in the back of a cycle rickshaw, its blades spinning in the wind; another pedals his bicycle with a single watermelon fastened to its back.

But as it starts to grow dark, a large share of the crowd crossing the border are men who come mostly empty-handed.

Men with government jobs, shirts tucked in and shoes polished in the morning, who are dropped off at the border in their vehicles.

And men who pedal their bicycles with heavy legs and heavy thoughts, the tools of their daily trade dangling in a bag from the handle.

These are Indian men entering Nepal for a drink or two - or as many as they can squeeze in before the police blow a whistle and the roadside bars close around 9pm.

The border between India and Nepal, barring moments of political tension, has been an example of how an open policy helps frontier people enjoy wider economic choices.

Take the needs of the motorcycle, a favourite means of transportation here, as an example: Spare parts are cheaper in India but fuel is cheaper in Nepal.

That openness has been particularly welcomed by local drinkers since the Indian state of Bihar, which has more than 100 million people and shares a border with Nepal more than 400 miles long, banned alcohol in 2016.

A small industry of bars and restaurants has sprung up just across the border on the Nepali side, catering to Indians of all classes seeking to quench their thirst.

The ban in Bihar, championed by local women, was aimed at tackling the rampant problems of alcoholism, domestic violence and squandered earnings.

Shops selling food and alcohol in Mahottari, Nepal. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The penalties for getting caught with alcohol have been severe.

A first-time offender must pay hundreds of dollars in fines or spend a month in jail; repeat offenders are sentenced to a year.

The government of the state's Chief Minister Nitesh Kumar has said the prohibition has helped in reducing violence and crime, though the proximity of the border and the ease of crossing it have lessened the law's effect.

The ban has also given rise to challenges.

The judiciary is clogged with alcohol cases.

The state is losing hundreds of millions of dollars every year in alcohol taxes.

And liquor is still available - smuggled in and sold at double or triple the price.

One Indian farmer, straddling a bench at one of the roadside bars in Nepal with two bottles of cheap grain spirit in front of him, said the chief minister wins elections because women vote for him in appreciation of the alcohol ban.

But the farmer, Mr Gupta, who shared only his last name because he planned on breaking the law by taking alcohol back with him across the border, said the policy had simply jacked up the price of alcohol, as it was still available but at two or three times the price.

A shop selling bottles of Nepali alcohol, with labels that often copy designs from well-known international brands, near Maruwai, Nepal. PHOTO: NYTIMES

While still on the Nepal side of the border, he purchased a third bottle to go, wrapping it in his shawl and tying it to the back of his bicycle.

As he wobbled away back towards Bihar, he assured everyone who could hear him that he was not drunk.

The open border area is vast, and so is the diversity of the evening alcohol scene that has grown across it in Nepal.

The well-off from India drive to the town of Janakpur or the sought-after hill areas, where the bars are air-conditioned, the alcohol imported, the scenes rowdy - and at times, obnoxious.

In one hotel bar in Janakpur, as the men grew tipsy around the table, they mixed shouts of "bottoms up!" with addressing the waiters by derogatory names as they ordered the next round.

In another hotel, the unease of being spotted drinking in Bihar still appeared to grip two men who had driven over for lunch:

They poured their beers into mugs tucked discreetly under the table.

Mr Umesh Yadav, a Nepali university lecturer from the border town of Jaleshwar, said the economic opportunity of an open border is much greater than small troubles that come with an increase in drunken customers.

"When they drink, obviously there is trouble sometimes," he said. "But police are always there."

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