Bihar Hooch Tragedy: A predictable tragedy 

You did not have to be a soothsayer to predict that a complete ban on the sale and consumption of liquor would inevitably spawn a flourishing bootlegging cottage industry and that periodically as a result there will be hooch tragedies. This was clearest to the dimmest of persons. That prohibition will also cause a huge depletion in the State’s revenue too was widely known. Yet, having got a bee in his bonnet about prohibition, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, ignoring all warnings, went ahead and imposed a total ban on the sale and consumption of liquor in the State from early April.

Now, the first hooch tragedy has come to surface. Sixteen people died last Monday after consuming illicit liquor in a kasba of Gopalganj district in the State. In Khajurbani settlement of Mahadalit Pasis they found that locals were brewing their own hooch from the mahua flowers which grows aplenty in the region. Police made some arrests while the main accused are reported to have fled. In the ensuing raids the police also found 300 litres of country liquor.

A related report revealed that a truck-load of Indian Made Foreign Liquor was impounded while smuggling in the contraband hidden under bags of inferior quality rice from the UP border. Other reports spoke of liquor being smuggled into Bihar as part of an established bootlegging operation from as far away as Haryana. Initially there was hesitation by the district authorities to ascribe the Gopalganj deaths to contaminated brew, but thanks to overwhelming evidence the district administration had to concede that these indeed were hooch deaths.

Media reports from the site of the tragedy spoke about police complicity in the brewing of hooch in the area. While it should not surprise anyone, Kumar is bent on defying commonsense, still nursing his ambition to tenant 7 Race Course Road through the prohibition gambit since it supposedly lines up the women constituency behind him. It is notable that only when he developed prime ministerial ambitions did he hit upon the idea of a complete ban on liquor.

Before that, though in power for ten years in a coalition with the BJP, he did not even think of regulating the sale of liquor. Indeed, in the first two terms as chief minister, he licensed several new liquor vends throughout the State. Curiously, while reluctant to concede that the deaths in Gopalganj might be caused by hooch, Kumar has promised a compensation of four lakh rupees to the next of kin of the deceased if it was conclusively proved that indeed these were hooch deaths. This largesse from the State does not make sense.

On the one hand, he has enacted a most stringent law which provides for capital punishment for those dealing with illicit liquor, and has made  every member of a household punishable in case one member is found in possession of or consuming liquor. On the other hand, he promises to reward the families of those who break the law and die from illicit liquor.

Financial compensation of any amount, what to talk of four lakh rupees, therefore, defies commonsense. Indeed, it might encourage the poor to risk drinking the illicit brew, certain in the knowledge that in case of death, munificent Kumar would pay a substantial sum to their families. Clearly, the Bihar CM has not thought through the decision — unless the financial compensation is meant to salve his conscience for imposing a very ill-conceived prohibition policy.

Meanwhile, the near Rs. 4,000 crore loss of revenue due to prohibition is beginning to hamper the implementation of various welfare schemes.  Outlays for public health and educational programmes have been either slashed or not honoured due to the paucity of funds. Imposing tax on samosas and such like stuff is hardly likely to make up for the huge loss due to blanket prohibition.

However stringent the punishment for violation of the ban on the sale and consumption of liquor, there is no way Kumar can triumph over human nature. Prohibition only drives the sale and consumption of liquor, genuine or spurious, underground and creates another source of illicit cash for the police and the excise departments.  The hooch tragedy is a warning to Kumar to embrace pragmatism over faddism. Bihar cannot hope to make a success of it when all other States which had toyed with it had admitted defeat.

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