ON 19 JULY, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar expressed shock over a hooch tragedy in Etah district of Uttar Pradesh that claimed 24 lives. At a rally in Phulpur, he called it “yet another reminder of the various evils that have their roots in liquor consumption”, adding, for good measure, “I wish the state government here had taken a cue from the experiment in neighbouring Bihar, where we have banned the sale and consumption of liquor.” Little did he know, as he tried to score a political point, that a bigger shock awaited him.
On the night of 15 August, illicit liquor took at least 16 lives across the border in his own state of Bihar, leaving the Chief Minister more than just a little red-faced. All the more so for his government’s ham-handed attempts to hush it up, perhaps in recognition of what it implies to its high-horse policy of prohibition. After the first few deaths, it tried to deny poisonous liquor as the cause. But once the toll crossed double digits, it had no option but to admit the truth.
The tragedy took place in Gopalganj, a town in Bihar not far from eastern UP. In the middle of its semi-urban sprawl lies Khajurbani, about a kilometre away from the local railway station. With a rivulet running through it, the area is populated mostly by Muslims, though it has a number of Passi and Lohar households as well. Across town, this is infamous as the place where the killer country liquor was made and sold.
When we reach, a week after the event, we find policemen stationed everywhere. Apart from their presence, the neighbourhood looks deserted. The Passi homes, all locked, are being sealed by cops. “Ever since the news came out,” says local resident Manu Alam, “all Passi families have fled”. Some of the accused have been arrested, among them the alleged kingpin of the illegal operation, Nagina Choudhary, but many are still at large. The police have used JCB earthmovers to destroy the liquor vats and have also recovered more than 1,000 litres of hooch by scouting around the locality. The smell still assaults the senses. “We are living in this hell for more than 10 years now,” says Alam, his nose covered, like mine. “There is prohibition in Bihar, but we never saw its effect. There would be a fair-like atmosphere every evening in Khajurbani. People would come in rickshaws and on bikes to get their daily dose of country liquor.”
At first, the authorities tried to pass the deaths off as one-offs, as instances of diarrhoea caused by food poisoning. But the story did not hold. The first death was reported on the evening of 16 August at Gopalganj’s Civil Hospital, that of Parma Mahto, 55, a fruit vendor of Nonia Toli locality. After getting his tipple the night before from a vend in Khajurbani, he got home late and didn’t eat anything. At around 4 am, he awoke with a fierce ache in his head and stomach. He found it hard to see. “I applied some oil on his head and massaged it for some time,” says his wife. But his condition worsened and he was taken to hospital. “Before going, he told us that there was something wrong with the liquor he’d had,” says his son Munmun Mahto, 30. He was given some treatment, after which the doctors there told them to take him home if they didn’t want trouble. “The doctor told me that he has consumed poison or liquor, and if anyone found out, we might all land up in jail,” says Munmun. The reference was to the provision in Bihar’s new law—still to be put into force—that holds family members legally culpable of anyone’s drunkenness on the premises.
Scared, the family decided to take Mahto home, but he didn’t survive the journey. He was cremated promptly, even before relatives got to know. Word was put out that he’d died of TB. Only after other fatalities were reported did the family dare disclose what he’d drunk.
By the official record, four others of his locality met the same fate. Among them were Shashi Kant Choudhary, 27, and Munna Shah, 25, both of whom had the same liquor on the night of 15 August. They were not habitual drinkers, their families claim, but would get drunk occasionally. Shashi Kant’s parents were in Delhi when they heard of their son’s death. “The family here was running with my son’s body from one place to another,” says Vinay Kumar Choudhary, the victim’s father. “Once I arrived, I told them not to get scared and took the body to a hospital for an autopsy.” They don’t know what the post-mortem report says, but are sure that the liquor claimed him. “If there is a liquor ban, how is it available to whoever wants to drink?” asks Kanchan, 20, Shashi’s bereaved wife, “On top of that, the police threatened us not to reveal the real reason for my husband’s death.” Munna Shah, along with three others, was referred to Patna Medical College Hospital for further treatment. Shah died in Patna, while the other three are battling for their lives after having lost their eyesight.
Few understand why this has befallen them. “My husband worked in the day as a labourer and he used to get tired by evening. If he drank to relax himself in the evening, what’s the harm in that?” asks Rina Devi, 35, of Arakhua village, who lost her husband Dinanath Manjhi to the same poison.
At first, the authorities tried to pass the deaths off as one-offs, as instances of diarrhoea caused by food poisoning. But the story did not hold
The state government claims 16 have died, but locals contest the figure. “I personally counted 28 deaths at the Civil Hospital,” claims Munna Chik, “Everyone was asked to take the body and dispose of it quickly in fear of arrest by police.”
A post-mortem was conducted on only eight bodies (the District Magistrate’s report says the others had already left the hospital and confirmed later that the deceased had consumed liquor). No alcohol was reported ingested in six of the cases. Cardiac arrest was put down as the cause of death in one case, and the consumption of sulpha—ammonium phosphide—in another. Dr Virendra Kumar, a physician in Patna, explains how that could happen. “Liquor may not be traced if the patient was constantly vomiting,” he says, “He must have thrown it up. A detailed viscera test will reveal it.”
Rahul Kumar, District Magistrate of Gopalganj, sees nothing amiss in the official record. “Those who say the death toll is higher should come up with further details of victims, and we would immediately investigate the matter,” he says. “We relied on accounts of the victim’s families in some cases, and termed it ‘death by consumption of liquor’.”
KHAJURBANI HAS PUT the spotlight on Bihar’s anti-liquor policy. The state’s traditional country liquor is called mahua, made of fruit pulp fermented with sugar, which has long been a cheap intoxicant of the masses. Ever since prohibition outlawed it, though, it sells for three times the price as before: at about Rs 300 a litre. What is still legally available is toddy, a mild spirit made of palm sap that Nitish Kumar had wanted banned as well but was resisted too fiercely to go ahead. According to 2011-12 data of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), the state’s per capita consumption of toddy and country liquor was 266 ml. Going by past growth rates, the figure for 2014-15 would not have been much higher. But after prohibition was imposed in April, “there has been 30 per cent increase in this consumption,” notes Kumar Vishnupad Manu, a social activist in Patna who is part of a team studying the impact of the policy. “Due to a ban on Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), people from lower stratas of society who used to drink cheap IMFL have shifted to country liquor,” he says, “There is a ban on country liquor too, but it is still available as people make it at home.”
Many makeshift units in hidden spaces are said to have sprung up across the state. While incomplete fermentation—which produces poisonous methanol instead of potable ethanol—is always a worry, a dangerous part of it now is the urea and ammonium chloride that’s being used to give the stuff a stronger kick. The killer liquor of Khajurbani is suspected to have had lethal doses of these two chemicals, though the eyesight loss suffered by victims suggests that classic methanol poisoning was to blame as well.
“Urea is a fertiliser and when you mix it with other toxic things like ammonium chloride or methanol, it can only become more deadly. It could lead to loss of eyesight, stroke and even death within a few hours,” says Dr Kumar.
“We traced methanol in the liquor we recovered from the place,” says Ravi Ranjan, excise superintendent of Gopalganj, “The casualties might be due to that. Investigations are still on.”
In the eye of the storm is a deeply flawed and absurdly draconian piece of legislation that the Nitish Kumar government has pushed through that criminalises not just the consumption of liquor, but even its ‘possession’ in a manner so loosely defined that all members of a family with any tipple found in their house could possibly be thrown behind bars for it. Critics point out that this is not just a violation of the principles of justice, it also gives the police space to misuse the law by arbitrarily planting liquor in homes and thus framing innocents. The legislation also seeks to empower state authorities to confiscate property and impose fines on entire groups of people , even a whole village.
The government has claimed that the new strictures has contained crime overall—a dubious effect of prohibition to begin with, even if drinking is said to result in lawlessness—since they were imposed on 1 April. Official figures did register a 27-per cent drop in crime for the first month, but the graph has risen since. “There has been an increase of 22 per cent in cognisable offences, 14 per cent increase in murder, 52 per cent in robbery, 59 per cent increase in riots and 55 per cent rise in rape, as per police data post April,” says Sushil Kumar Modi, former Deputy Chief Minister and senior BJP leader. “This exposes the claims made by Nitish Kumar on the positive impact of prohibition.”
In any case, prohibition is hard to enforce fully, and while Bihar’s 6,000-odd IMFL shops have been shut, bootleg alcohol is easily available. “If you want, I will give you the number of a bootlegger. Call him, and he will deliver to your house,” says a local JD-U leader in Gopalganj. A Rs 500 bottle of Royal Stag whisky would cost Rs 1,500. On 3 August, the excise department and police at the Jalalpur border checkpost in Gopalganj seized 9,000 bottles of IMFL from a truck that was supposed to be carrying sacks of rice. A few days later, an ambulance was caught with five cartons of IMFL hidden beneath its patient stretcher.
A few chemists have taken to selling whisky in the guise of medicines. Code names are used. Blencodrill is code for Blenders Pride in a cough syrup bottle
“On an estimate, the earlier consumption was around 100,000 litres every month,” says Manu, whose fieldwork suggests that the new policy has more than halved this figure but enriched bootleggers enormously. Wine shops were given the option of turning into milk booths, but only 16 of Patna and Vaishali’s 100- odd shops opted for it. Many of the rest are suspected to be plying their trade via underground networks.
In Patna, we meet an IMFL shopowner who has turned into a bootlegger in Patna. “What is the margin on a packet of milk? Just one rupee. Do you think I will do that business?” he asks. “Selling liquor now is risky, but that’s what I have been doing for years.” There are various routes through which liquor enters Bihar. “The night buses plying from different cities in Jharkhand to Bihar usually carry it for a charge. We pay Rs 1,000 per box of IMFL that contains 10 to 12 bottles,” he reveals on condition of anonymity. His customers are lawyers, doctors and other professionals, some of them high profile, he claims. Does he have police officers as clients? Yes, he nervously admits. “You must be thinking that I am making huge money. But imagine the risk. Sometimes the consignment gets caught. You need to change the supply route and supplier each time.”
“The transformation that has taken place is that from a necessity, liquor has become a luxury,” says a police officer in Gopalganj of the new policy regime. The worst sufferers are the poor, who make do with strange concoctions produced illegally that often prove fatal. “Had there been IMFL available, my son could have been saved,” says Shashi’s father. “You cannot stop your child from drinking just because it has become a crime overnight.”
Signs that people have not let go of their drink are all over the place in Bihar. More insidiously, a few chemists in Muzaffarpur have taken to selling whisky in the guise of medicines. Code names have sprung up. Ask for Signetrazyme, and you get Signature whisky in a bottle of what looks like cough syrup. Blencodrill is code for Blenders Pride.
The authorities say they are keeping a strict vigil. “We have conducted 700 raids, and 170 persons have been arrested and sent to jail ever since prohibition was imposed,” says Ravi Ranjan, excise superintendent of Gopalganj. “Liquor has come under the excise department only recently. Earlier, it was under the revenue department. The staff strength is falling short, given the additional responsibility.” The police also say they are overstretched. “Most of the police workforce is busy conducting raids on liquor. [Other issues of] law and order have taken a backseat, as no one wants to get suspended just because a bottle of liquor was recovered from his area,” says a senior police officer.
Then, there is the fiscal impact as well. Bihar’s Finance Minister Abdul Bari Siddiqui recently admitted in the state Assembly that the state’s overall revenues had gone down. No surprise there. “This new excise and prohibition law is bound to have a hard impact on the state’s financial health. How to make up for an annual loss of Rs 4,500 crore [in liquor taxes and levies] is a big question,” says Nawal Kishore Chaudhary, a local economist.
While prohibition wreaks havoc in various ways, the Chief Minister is adamant that Bihar should be liquor free. Punitive action for the Gopalganj tragedy has been swift. All 25 cops, including 15 officers, of the local police station have been suspended for dereliction of duty. More cases will occur, says a police officer in Patna, and the force’s morale will suffer. “Whatever we do,” he sighs, “complete prohibition is not achievable.”