The Chhapra hooch tragedy in which nearly 40 people have lost their lives is yet another grim reminder of Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s folly in not recognising the terrible costs of his prohibition policy. Far from being chastened, he has made it a prestige issue. Nitish’s statement that those who drink will die is downright insensitive to the victims; more so given that he is the architect of this law. Support is waning within his JD(U) and ally RJD has been sceptical ever since Nitish implemented it in 2016 as a mahagathbandhan poll promise.
The political disquiet is hardly surprising. At multiple levels the policy has taken a toll on the state. First, there are the recurring hooch tragedies. And second, the revenue loss to the exchequer. Before prohibition, the government earned Rs 4,000 crore annually from liquor. Even assuming this figure stayed flat, that’s a big hole of nearly Rs 30,000 crore in revenues over seven years for GoI’s poorest state. Ironically, neighbours like Bengal and Jharkhand have reported excise fillips after 2016, suggesting that’s how liquor is flowing into the state. Even Bihar’s hospitality industry has lost out.
Not surprisingly, a parallel economy is flourishing. Unlike the middle class who get IMFL from other states, the poor can access only unsafely produced country liquor. For most cops, all this is a cash cow. The Patna high court is also part of collateral damage – thousands of bail applications filed by those arrested under the prohibition law swamped the HC.
By 2009, women voters had gravitated to Nitish Kumar given his efforts to improve law and order and facilitate girls’ access to education. Faced with BJP’s centrally sponsored schemes tailored for women after 2014, prohibition was Nitish’s desperate attempt to preserve JD(U)’s base among women. But if post-poll studies of the 2020 assembly elections are any indication, this voter segment has gravitated to BJP. Rather than prohibition, Nitish would do better selling Bihar’s success in expanding tap water connections, which is considered the country’s best performer on this score. There’s a keen tussle between JD(U) and BJP to claim credit here, which makes all the noise surrounding prohibition unhelpful to JD(U)’s cause. Prohibition doesn’t stop people from drinking and it is economically and socially damaging. When will Nitish realise this?
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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