Which single law has led to the arrest of the highest number of violators in the country – 3.06 lakh, to be precise – since it was enacted in April 2016? The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016. That’s an average of almost 190 people being arrested every day for violating prohibition provisions during the 1,580 days from April 2016 till August 2020.

That figure was quoted by the Congress in its manifesto, unveiled on Wednesday under the title “Badlav Patra”. The party promises to review what it calls the “Draconian law” if gains power after Bihar votes in three phases on October 28, November 3 and November 7. The counting of votes is scheduled for November 10. The results are expected the same evening.

The Congress has partnered with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and three Left parties to take on the ruling National Democratic Alliance of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United and Bharatiya Janata Party.

This promise to review prohibition will add to the woes of Chief Minister Kumar, who is already grappling with anti-incumbent sentiment after 15 years in office since 2005. Apparently aware of its likely impact on his prospects, Kumar has complained to supporters at election meetings that “people opposed to prohibition have plotted to oust me from power”.

It has also given a ray of hope to those in Bihar who drink liquor. With the state machinery having failed miserably to implement the ban, Biharis have easy access to the intoxicant. But to get a drink, they have to pay three times the price for a bottle to bootleggers in cities or brewers in villages. That has resulted in anger against Kumar.

Arresting the marginalised

According to officials in the office of the Inspector General of Police (prohibition), the force until August had arrested 2.39 lakh people and the excise department 66,657 people. “Over 90% of these 3.06 lakh happen to be poor Dalits and Mahadalits who were arrested for petty offences like being in a drunken state or carrying a bottle or pouch of liquor; not for smuggling the contraband into the state,” Congress’ Manifesto Committee chairman Anand Madhav told this writer.

The state excise department also boasted that it had recovered nearly 81 lakh litres of Indian-made foreign liquor and another 43 lakh litres of country liquor between April 2016 and August 2020.

Earlier, in an affidavit submitted by the state government to the Patna High Court, it said that 52 lakh litres of liquor had been seized and arrested 1.67 lakh violators till June 2019. Until June 2019, 2.07 lakh of the 2.15 lakh liquor law-related cases were pending disposal.

These figures underscore the fact that liquor consignments are making their way into Bihar despite police and excise check-posts in the state.

Rahul Gandhi and Tejashwi Yadav at an election rally in Nawada on October 23. Credit: PTI

So well-oiled is the network of bootleggers that they have continued to smuggle contraband liquor into Bihar even after Central paramilitary forces took position in he state in the run-up to the polls. Dr Kamal Kishore Singh, the Election Commission’s nodal police officer for monitoring election expenditure said that the forces had seized 5.16 lakh litres of liquor in a month since the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct came into force on September 26.

These figures, when compared with those of the 2015 assembly election, make a mockery of the liquor ban. “Prohibition had not come into effect in 2015,” said Singh. “Yet, the forces seized only a little over five lakh litres of liquor in the 59 days when the EC’s Model Code of Conduct was in force in 2015. Now that Bihar is officially a dry state, 5.16 lakh litres of liquor has been seized in just a month. These figures will obviously go up by the time the voting is over on November 7.”

Congress is cautious

Will the Congress, if voted to power, end prohibition since it is clearly a policy that exists only on paper?

Madhav was cautious. “We shall definitely do whatever is permissible under our Constitution to free the poor from such Draconian provisions that prescribe imprisonment for such a petty crime as being drunk on a particular day,” he said.

Political observers attribute the Congress’ wariness to the popular perception that Nitish Kumar through this “masterstroke” has created a loyal vote-bank of women who were victims of abuse by their alcoholic spouses. Withdrawing the legislation may antagonise them.

Even the state government does not deny that liquor is available in Bihar, albeit at a premium. On one occasion, when journalists drew Kumar’s attention to the fact, he tersely retorted, “Even murders are taking place. Shall we repeal Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code [which relates to murder] then?”

Double whammy

“Peenewaale pee rahein hain [drinkers are drinking],” said Ali Anwar, president of All India Pashmanda Muslim Mahaz that works with poor and backward Muslims. Anwar, who was two-term MP from Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and parted ways with him after he renewed his alliance with the BJP in 2017, describes Kumar’s prohibition as a double whammy to the state’s people: the government’s revenue loss from taxes on liquor sales hurts the state’s development programmes and individual consumer suffer financial losses because of the inflated costs they now pay on the black market.

When the ban became law in April 2016, the government estimated that it would deprive its coffers of excise duty to the tune of Rs 5,500 crore in the 2016-’17 alone. “That’s a heavy price to pay for a failed move,” said economist Nawal Kishore Chaudhary.

Though Chaudhury is otherwise an anti-alcoholism advocate, he would like the government to “shun its hypocrisy” and withdraw the legislation.

“An amount of Rs 5,000 crore-Rs 5,500 crore is on any day a big component of the Budget of a poor state like Bihar,” he said. “If you cannot implement prohibition, why forego this amount which can be put to use for development of health, education and road sectors all of which are in a precarious state in Bihar?”

Anwar linked this lost revenue to the row over the promise by Tejashwi Yadav, the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress-Left alliance’s chief ministerial candidate, to provide ten lakh jobs to jobless if voted to power. Nitish Kumar has criticised the promise, saying that funds-starved Bihar cannot bear the expenditure of Rs 58,000 crore per annum that would be needed to pay these employees.

Yadav responded to Kumar by reminding him that his government returns unutilised funds to the Centre to the tune of Rs 20,000 crore every year. “Also, this government was involved in scams worth Rs. 38,000 crore,” Yadav said. “Our government will make these savings to pay our employees.”

Add to these savings, said Anwar, the Rs. 5,500 crore or more that would come as excise duty if the “failed” prohibition is withdrawn.

Raj Kumar is a former deputy resident editor with the Times of India, Patna.