08 Apr 2016 19:02 IST

History shows that Nitish Kumar will lose the prohibition battle

Will the shutting down of one evil give birth to an equally dangerous monster?

It is tempting to say that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s decision to ban liquor in the state was forced on him by women supporters. It was during the campaign for the state elections last year when women, probably tired of their alcoholic spouses, requested the leader to ban the sale of liquor if voted to power.

Kumar agreed and went on to win the elections. Now, to make sure that his popularity with the women supporters remained intact, he announced prohibition of alcohol in Bihar. Politically, it is seen as a wise move as, in the last few elections, women voters have turned out in much higher numbers than their male counterparts.

On the other hand, the ban will not go down well with those who enjoy a peg or two at the end of the day. But it is a move that does social good. Every year, scores of people die in India after consuming illicit liquor. Alcohol addiction has broken families, led to violence, and loss of lives.

Bihar doesn’t top the country in liquor stakes — it lags behind its peers, such as Punjab and Kerala, (where a part-prohibition is in place) in per capita consumption. A report in Business Standard adds that while a Bihari spends ₹15.50 a month on his poison, his Telugu (₹173), Malayalee (₹80) and Punjabi (₹72) peers dig deeper into their pockets.

Revenue Avenues

While a lower spend could reflect lesser means, liquor consumption in Bihar has indeed rocketed. One reflection of that is in the jump in the state’s revenue from the liquor industry, which increased by over 600 per cent from ₹475 crore in 2007 to ₹3,500 crore in 2014. A report says that each of the state’s districts now have rehabilitation centres for those looking to get over the addiction.

But this also means that the Chief Minister’s finance men will now have to get innovative and start thinking about new avenues to generate money. That could be one reason why Kumar didn’t ban the production of liquor in Bihar. While this might be called hypocrisy, the revenue problem doesn’t bode well for a State already struggling with its finances.

There are other equally serious problems.

Historically ineffective

Historically, prohibition hasn’t been very effective, both in India and abroad. Take Gujarat for instance. Though Mahatma Gandhi’s home state was the first to implement prohibition in the country, many say alcohol consumption has been rampant.

Local bootlegging seems to be thriving, and those with a thing for the peg haven’t suffered much for the lack of a supply chain. If the illegal market becomes too expensive, the customers travel to neighbouring markets, or states/union territories. That explained the unusually high number of Gujarat-registered vehicles I saw in Daman while on a visit in 2009. I saw the people having a party outside their cars and stuffing the trunks with cases of bottles.

No wonder a local told a leading financial daily — “Liquor availability is as good as power supply in Gujarat.”

In the US too, prohibition ended as a terrible experiment. The ban, from 1920 to 1933, might have led to reduced alcohol consumption, but saw the growth of urban crime.

In Bihar, the Chief Minister has shown good intentions in the initial days. His law enforcement teams have made raids, and collected over 16,000 litres of the spirit in just a day. The real question is how long can the police maintain this intensity? Will the shutting down of one evil give birth to an equally dangerous monster?

History is against Nitish Kumar.