A recently published report based on the studies of Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) and Development Management Institute (DMI) suggested growing improvement in the living standards of Biharis after complete prohibition was imposed in April of 2016.
The studies were reportedly sponsored and funded by the Nitish government; therefore, their absolute scientificity and veracity would always be in question. A government would always like its policies and programs to be projected as being successful.
However, it should not be denied that Nitish’s single-minded attention to the two-year execution of the prohibition policies did bear fruits in Bihar. Even anecdotally, one could notice the evidence of change in the habits of those who were addicted to daily excessive dose of liquor.
During my last visit to Darbhanga (Bihar) in October-November of 2017, I found the alleys in the market adjacent to my ancestral home quiet at dusk. It was that spot where, before prohibition, one liquor shop had generated so much crowd, noise, open drinking and indecency that the pathways to the civilians were blocked. On the other side of my mohalla, another spacious toddy shop (the din and bustle around which I had been watching since my childhood) was also vacant and silent.
This doesn’t mean liquors weren’t available. In fact, at a social, I was asked by a member of the host family if I wished to have one. I could have gone upstairs to join the exclusive club. Not only did I decline out of deference to the law of the state, but engaged the host in a debate as to why people, in general, weren’t respectful to the government policies and the law.
In totality, there was a perceptible impact of prohibition and even affluent people had to drastically reduce their lust for alcohol. There were at least two inhibiting factors to the upper caste and income groups: (a) they wouldn’t necessarily get the brand they were looking for and (b) it would be at a very exorbitant price. The underground suppliers had to “manage” the police. The upper castes were a bit scared of breaking the law as well. The lucrative business, however, ran in shadows.
Initially an opponent of a blanket prohibition, I found myself gradually looking at the positive results of its success. For the overall betterment of the vast number of poor people, it was absolutely necessary to take them off their harmful addiction. A reform in the lifestyle habits had to precede the educational, health and economic upliftment of the less privileged.
Now, strangely, the challenge against this very constructive policy began coming from the so-called leaders of the backwards, extremely backwards, scheduled castes and tribes. The RJD leaders announced their opposition to prohibition publicly after their separation from Nitish. They went around campaigning as if they would restore people’s right to drink once they came back to power. Many lower wage earners or vendors, in their estimation, lost their livelihood because of prohibition.
Nitish Kumar, who spearheaded the prohibition legislation with so much determination and fanfare, announced on its anniversary that there was no question of discontinuing the prohibition in the state. Reminding the people that this public policy was adopted in response to the demands and for the benefit of the women, especially from the rural-lower strata (caste) of the state. Referring to the Supreme Court, he asserted drinking liquor was not one of the fundamental rights of a citizen and for the sake of principle, he was prepared to make any sacrifice.
However, as the 2020 provincial election seemed to loom large, Nitish was reported to have indicated that he was open to modifications in the prohibition laws. The OBCs, EBCs, SCs, STs and a part of the Muslim population were the vote base of the JD(U) as well. The party would not like to see its support base slipping for the sake of prohibition. According to the current political temperature of the state, the JD(U)-BJP reunion and incarceration of Lalu had enraged a sizable section of the Muslims and the Yadavs. In other words, the dent Nitish was successful making in the MY coalition over the years had almost disappeared.
In addition, Jitan Ram Manjhi, a former CM and Dalit leader, opened up another front of lower caste warfare against his former mentor, Nitish Kumar. He demanded not only abolition of prohibition but an apology to the people of Bihar particularly to the Dalits. He claimed that in the execution of prohibition, Dalits were the most persecuted lot. The Hindustani Awam Party (HAM) leader cited a figure that out of 127,000 people put behind the bars for violating prohibition laws, 78,000 were Dalits. The government sources said the total prison population of Bihar was less than the number given.
The execution of prohibition as a water-tight public policy was shaky to begin with. It didn’t leave room for special cases or exceptions, thus giving rise to illicit production, smuggling and distribution. In a corruption-ridden state, the underworld business became a big attraction for unemployed or criminal-minded youth. The closure of liquor or other intoxicating business had definitely pushed many people out of jobs. However, as a precondition to improving the lot of the weaker sections of the society, it was also essential to have their habits improved and alternative employment generated.
Nitish’s government should be credited with outlawing consumption of Gutka in Bihar as well. Gutka is a substance mixed processed tobacco product that causes serious diseases as mouth cancer or other submucous fibrosis. The government also contemplated seriously outlawing tobacco itself. On these issues, there should have been complete consensus.
On the contrary, it’s amazing how self-styled champions of the backwards and downtroddens were interested more in their votes than in their healthy social emancipation.
Moreover, in Bihar, there’s mostly an appalling propensity to defy the laws or the authority of the land, and thereby “get a kick out of it.” The huge chunk of the population that yearns it cuts across all religion, class, caste or income categories. As a result, the number of people who, in principle, wished to play by the rules and abide by the laws kept declining rapidly. Breaking the law and order were always so contagious.
Politicians, unfortunately, preserve and pander to the baser desires of their constituencies. This, in my opinion, partially explains the lawlessness and recession in advancement in Bihar.
Elimination of unhealthy habits, bad behavior or bad instincts are also turned into issues of lower caste politics.
Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.
Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.