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Milton Friedman, the Nobel-winning American economist said, “the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.” He was only partially right as in many cases the government solution to a problem is worse than the problem itself. The prohibition law of Bihar is one such glaring example of imprudent policymaking by an elected government. The state government, guided by Article 47 of the Indian Constitution, imposed complete prohibition in the state in April 2016; and in little less than seven years of its existence, the law has proved to be a monumental failure. Bihar’s prohibition law has also emerged as a lesson on how an ill-conceived policy can lead to a state of complete chaos.
Around eighty people died recently in the Saran district by consuming spurious liquor, drawing nationwide attention once again on Bihar’s much-publicized prohibition policy. While there has always been a tendency on the part of the governments to underreport crimes that arise due to their own administrative and policy failures, the Bihar government has taken it a notch higher. One can see obvious discrepancies in the official figure offered by the government and the actual number of casualties due to illicit liquor in the state. The Indian Express report on deaths due to the consumption of spurious liquor says that the cumulative NCRB data from 2016 to 2021 shows only 23 hooch deaths in Bihar — six in 2016, none in 2017, none in 2018, nine in 2019, six in 2020 and two in 2021, however, during this period, the state witnessed at least 20 hooch cases in which about 200 people died. And just in 2021, 106 people died in nine hooch cases. Clearly, data is being fudged to hide the grotesque reality of prohibition.
On liquor, Nitish Kumar, Bihar Chief Minister, seems to have traveled from one extreme to the other. In 2005, when Nitish Kumar swept to power in alliance with the BJP, he inherited an economy that was in a completely dilapidated condition owing to years of fiscal mismanagement of previous governments. Faced with an extreme shortage of revenue, in 2007, Nitish Kumar’s government decided to bring about some essential changes in the state excise law, paving the way for the issuance of fresh licenses to open liquor shops. During the period between 2006-07 to 2012-13 the number of liquor shops in the state surged from 3,436 to over 5,467. The sudden jump in liquor sales filled the state coffers, taking Bihar’s excise revenue from Rs 525 crore in 2007-2008 to Rs 3,142 crore in 2015-2016. But suddenly, in 2015, buoyed by the decisive mandate in assembly elections, Nitish Kumar decided to impose a complete ban on all kinds of liquors. With the benefit of hindsight, one can say that the law that was introduced by Nitish Kumar as the fulfillment of his election promise to the women of the state has not only failed to deliver on the ground, but it has become the proverbial albatross around the neck of Nitish Kumar. What exacerbated the discourse in the present instance was Bihar Chief Minister’s unimaginably insensitive remark ‘piyega to marega hi’ in response to the deaths that happened in Saran. Such irresponsible statements are a sign of Nitish Kumar’s growing exasperation at his perceived helplessness on the issue.
Recent developments have set-off a vigorous political debate on the socio-economic impact of the law while raising some serious questions about its desirability in a state that has always suffered from dire fiscal constraints.
Bihar, the state which is home to about 1.5 percent of the total world population, is fiscally one of the most vulnerable states in the country with its per capita income being one-third of the national average. According to the data provided by PRS Legislative Research, the per capita GSDP of Bihar in 2020-21(at current prices) was Rs. 50,555 while the per capita GDP at the national level stood at Rs. 1,46, 087 during the same period. Besides, Bihar’s per capita GSDP was also the lowest among all states in the country. Further, Niti Aayog’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) released in November 2021 named Bihar as the poorest state in the country with 51.91 percent population of the state being poor. Considering the precarious health of the economy, a very obvious question that arises is this- does Bihar actually need such a law that requires intense efforts and enormous amounts of resources for its effective enforcement?
The answer to this question, as many experts believe, could be a big no! But what explains this near-unanimous opposition to the prohibition law- the law itself or the shoddy manner of its implementation? In a democratic system of governance any policy that has direct socio-economic implications for a large number of populaces of the state first need to go through broader scrutiny with regard to its viability. And in the present instance, the Bihar government seems to have failed to follow this elementary principle of governance. Even worse is the fact that the state government did not bother to learn from the experiences of other states which had introduced similar legislation in the past but were forced to withdraw them soon after as they found the implementation of the law arduous and impracticable. Numerous Indian states such as Maharashtra, Haryana, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (all these states are economically prosperous) have made in past futile attempts to enforce prohibition. What is more instructive is the fact that it is not the first time that Bihar has experimented with prohibition; the Bihar government under Karpoori Thakur had implemented prohibition in 1977-78, causing massive political uproar in the state. Thakur eventually had to resign and his successor Ram Sundar Das lifted the ban as soon as he took over the chief minister’s chair.
There is a wider perception that prohibition has failed in Bihar, and I will present three different facts that justify this perception.
First, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) data for the year 2019-20, Bihar, despite being a dry state, has a higher proportion of people consuming alcohol than Maharashtra (a state with no prohibition rule). NFHS-5 data reveals that 15.5 percent of the male population of age 15 years and above in Bihar consume alcohol. In urban regions of the state, 14 percent of men age 15 years and above drink alcohol, while the percentage is 15.8 in rural Bihar. Can there be any justification for this continuing trend of alcoholism in a dry state?
Second, anyone living in Bihar will tell you that although liquor is banned in the state, you can easily get it delivered at your doorstep now. The burgeoning trade of illicit liquor in the state bears testimony to the fact that prohibition policy has little impact on the ground. In one of the most preposterous arguments ever heard, Bihar Police, in 2017, claimed that “rats drank up to 9 lakh liters of illegal liquor” confiscated by authorities! Can you believe that? Contrary to all the tall claims made by the government, Bihar, in reality, has witnessed exorbitant growth in the sale of illicit liquor and this certainly could not have been possible without the connivance of local administration. There is enough evidence available that suggests growing nexus between the liquor mafias and government authorities. And, Nitish Kumar, instead of addressing the problem, has so far only tried to evade the truth.
Third, while the law promised to bring about a positive change in the financial well-being of the people belonging to the marginalised communities, facts suggest that the people belonging to the lowest strata of the social hierarchy have been the biggest victims of this stringent law. Bihar police records testify that there were 3,48,170 cases lodged and 4,01,855 arrests made under the draconian provisions of the prohibition law until October 2021. A significant majority of those languishing in prisons belong to the most vulnerable section of society. While poor people are made to face the wrath of the law, the real culprits- the top dogs of liquor cartels are usually allowed to go scot-free.
Once again, I’m tempted to quote Friedman who said, that one of the greatest mistakes is to “to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” And in the case of prohibition, regardless of the nobility of purpose, the law has proved to be an absolute disaster for the youths of the state. One of the many catastrophic consequences of the law is the growing drug culture in the state. The Print published a ground report on the growing addiction to drugs among Bihari youths. The report said, “ever since the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) government banned liquor in 2016, drug use has gone up among young Biharis. Heroin, ganja, charas, intravenous drugs have been the refuge of addicts in the state.” Quoting a study conducted by UDAYA, the report said, “consumption was higher among rural boys (21 percent) in Bihar than urban ones (17 percent).” So clearly, drugs have not only reached there but are abundantly available in our villages now. In October this year, the Patna High Court also rang alarm bells about the growing drug culture in the state. The court rebuked the state government for its apparent failure to stop the trafficking of drugs throughout Bihar. The question is – Has Bihar been pushed on the path to becoming the next Punjab?
Whether prohibition has caused any perceptible change in the social behavior of the people should be a matter of academic debate but before I conclude this article, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to the economic consequences of prohibition. Consider these numbers- for 2015-16 (the year before prohibition was introduced), Bihar’s excise revenue stood at Rs 3,142 crore. The following year, it crashed to Rs 46 crore; and as per various estimates, in seven years of its implementation, the state has lost around Rs. 40,000 crores of its excise revenue. During the same period, the excise revenue of neighboring states like West Bengal and Jharkhand witnessed phenomenal growth. So, it’s evident that our neighbors gained from our losses.
What is most disappointing is the fact that the state’s current Chief Minister, to make the state alcohol-free, a goal that he is unlikely to achieve in this lifetime, has forgotten his actual mandate. He is willing to act more like a social reformer than the Chief Minister of state whose prime job is to provide good governance to the people. What Bihar is suffering from today is not the lack of resources, but the lack of imagination at the level of top leadership. The state needs now more than ever an imaginative and audacious leadership that can take it out of its perpetual state of poverty.