India’s Bihar state imposes prohibition in bid to ‘cleanse’ society

Critics of Nitish Kumar move say state will lose €582m in tax revenue due to prohibition

The authorities in India’s Bihar state have advanced the alcohol ban deadline by six months to Tuesday this week, claiming that now was “the right time for social change in Bihar”. Photograph: David Jones/PA Wire

The authorities in India’s Bihar state have advanced the alcohol ban deadline by six months to Tuesday this week, claiming that now was “the right time for social change in Bihar”. Photograph: David Jones/PA Wire

 

The authorities in India’s eastern Bihar state have imposed prohibition in a move aimed at “cleansing” society and ridding it of a “social evil”.

Chief minister of the state Nitish Kumar advanced the ban deadline by six months to Tuesday this week, claiming that now was “the right time for social change in Bihar”.

The alcohol ban was one of Mr Kumar’s major campaign promises during last year’s state assembly elections.

When asked what would happen to the hundreds of liquor shops in the state, Mr Kumar declared that they would now sell milk, a drink associated with robustness and good health across India.

He also threatened to impose capital punishment on those who consumed alcohol, or sold it clandestinely.

The ban has received considerable support from women in the state, who link drinking by men to domestic violence, rape and poverty.

But critics of Kumar’s initiative oppose the move on the grounds that Bihar is one of India’s most backward and poverty-ridden states, and is set to lose more than €582 million in annual tax revenue due to prohibition.

They also claim that tens of thousands of locals will lose their jobs and some 6,000 restaurants across the state will close because of the ban on alcohol sales.

Many officials in Bihar, however, conceded that prohibition was “unenforceable” in the long term, with several states including Haryana in the north and Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in the south having been forced to withdraw similar bans.

They also admitted that prohibition would inevitably promote the large-scale production of unregulated “hooch”, an alcoholic drink distributed via bootlegger syndicates backed by corrupt politicians, police and other officials.

“To run this well-oiled racket, manufacturers and distributors of spurious liquor are supported by the very same people who are supposed to stop all such activity” a senior police official said.

Last June, more than 100 people died in Mumbai after consuming illegal and unregulated alcoholic drinks, while 29 died after consuming toxic alcohol in northern Uttar Pradesh state earlier in 2015. Some 126 died in similar circumstances in eastern Bengal province in late 2011.

Alcohol is banned in western Gujarat state, while southern Kerala province and a handful of other Indian states have imposed a partial embargo.

Gujarat has enforced prohibition since India gained its independence 69 years ago, out of regard for Mahatma Gandhi who was born there and championed temperance movements.

But illegal alcohol is freely available in the state, where prime minister Narendra Modi was chief minister for nearly 14 years before becoming prime minister in mid-2014, resulting in generations of political leaders and officials growing enormously wealthy by backing bootleggers.