Prohibition in Bihar, imposed earlier this year, has wide support from the state’s women with the possible exception of the women of Kailashpuri village in Nalanda district.

At a women’s self-help group meeting in the village held in the last week of August, Rekha Devi, who works with Jeevika, the Bihar government’s rural livelihood programme, explained why alcohol is bad and how prohibition had changed all their lives for the better. This was more than just empty advice. In August, the state administration had threatened to fine the whole village under Bihar's new prohibition law.

The women of Kailashpuri listened to her patiently. However, after some time, Chanchala Devi, a Dalit, spoke up.

“Alcohol has been stopped but why doesn’t the government provide other jobs to us?” she asked. “What will we eat?”

With Chanchala Devi’s dissenting statement, a dam broke. Dalit women started complaining loudly that prohibition had taken away their livelihoods. Another woman, Chameli Devi, dramatically proclaimed: “I might as well take Nitish’s [the Bihar chief minister] name and commit suicide by drinking some pesticide. His law has ruined us.”

Dalit target

The Nitish Kumar government banned country liquor from April 1 to keep his campaign promise made in the elections held last year, So-called Indian-Made Foreign Liquor, as locally made whiskey, gin and rum are known, was prohibited from April 5. Kumar hopes that the move will help garner him support in rural Bihar, where the taboo against alcohol is widespread.

However, the new law alienates one of his government’s core support bases: the Mahadalits, the poorest among the Dalits. Since country liquor is mostly made by the poorest Dalit castes, the imposition of prohibition has snatched away a key income source for them.

Kailashpuri, a Dalit village, has been a major target of the new prohibition law. Before April 1, the village was a country liquor hub, with its residents making alcohol from sugar waste.

The women of neighbouring Fazillapur village had previously led an attempt to stop the manufacture and sale of alcohol in Kailashpuri, but they were not successful.

Fazillapur village consists of land-owning Yadavs and Kurmis. Many of its residents saw clear benefits in stopping the people of Kailashpuri from making alcohol. But the Dalit women of Kailashpuri, who were in the business of manufacturing country liquor, were too marginal to muster up a campaign to stop it.

Of course, after April 1, the administration cracked down and imposed prohibition. Multiple raids were conducted on Kailashpuri village ­– and when that didn’t work, the District Magistrate imposed a fine of Rs 5,000 on each house, only to lift it later after the villagers promised to enforce prohibition.

“We can never afford a Rs 5,000 fine,” said Chanchala Devi. “So what were we to do? We had to agree”.

Growing anger

Anger against Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his government bubbles over in the village. “Nitish promised Mahadalits three decimals of land [approximately 1,300 sq feet], a house and what not,” said local resident Chhote Lal Sapera, irritably. “They kept on chanting 'Mahadalit' during the elections, but not only did we not get anything, even our profession of making alcohol has been snatched away.”

Another resident, Vinesh Nat, drew attention to the depressed economic condition of the Dalits of Kailashpuri. “Not a single person here is educated,” he said. “No one owns any land. We have to work in the fields of the Yadavs or the Kurmis or try and emigrate to other places in India. Even then we face so much trouble because we don’t have any identity documents.”

Nat added: “We are so poor. What was wrong if we were making some money selling alcohol? It is not like we were committing a crime against someone.”

Savitri Devi, a resident of Kailashpuri, echoed Chanchala Devi's fears about a loss of livelihood. “I understand that prohibition is bad but the government needs to give us other jobs then,” she said, and pointed to the caste angle at play. “Yadav and Kurmi women from Fazillapur can easily support this law because they have kheti-bari, farming,” she said. “What do we have?”

She added: “Would this government ever have banned alcohol if these rich people were making it? You can only do it because you are opressing us Dalits”.

Push and pull

In the highly politicised environment of Bihar, prohibition is already being weighed in terms of votes. In Toofanganj village in Rahui block of Nalanda district, the Dalit settlement is appreciative of Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan, who is the Union minister for Food and Public Distribution.

“Paswan sat on a dharna and lifted the ban on toddy,” said Munna Paswan.

A month after implementing total prohibition, pressure from Paswan’s party as well as Kumar’s own alliance partner, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, forced a roll back on palm toddy. Paswan claimed that since toddy was basically fermented palm sap it was a “health drink”. Of course, the real reason was electoral pressure from the Pasi caste, which harvests the palm sap and makes toddy.

Even after the rollback, however, Pasis seem angry with the sudden restrictions on their trade. “We can’t sell toddy within 100 metres of a temple, road or a market,” complained Raju Chaudhury, a toddy tapper in Toofanganj. “Using these rules the police often harass and arrest us for no reason.”

The law bars the sale of toddy within 100 metres of any market place and its entrance, educational institutions, hospitals, religious places, bathing places, factories, petrol pumps, railway stations, bus stations, residential colonies of Scheduled Castes or labourers, national highways and state highways in urban areas. The law has existed since 1991 but is only being implemented now in the wake of prohibition, thus greatly troubling the Pasis.

Electoral calculations

If Nitish Kumar is worried about the impact of prohibition on Dalits, he isn’t showing it. On August 1, the Bihar Assembly made the prohibition law much stricter, putting in collective penalties on entire families and communities in order to deter potential drinkers.

Kumar’s decision to implement prohibition seems to be driven by the fact that alcohol-makers are a small segment of the population as compared to the large numbers of women who will be pleased with prohibition.

Even within Mahadalits, the people who don’t manufacture alcohol are mostly happy with prohibition. In Kalyan Bigha, Nitish Kumar’s home village, the Musahar community, a desperately backward caste, has mostly given up making alcohol and now supports the new law.

“Yes, some of us did make mahua [a country liquor] but we left it a long time back because we know it’s a terrible habit,” said Suhag Manjhi, a resident of the village. “Other people who make alcohol should also stop.”

This is the second and concluding part of a ground report that looks at the social impact of Bihar's prohibition law. The first part part, dealing with its effect on rural woman, can be read here.