The Drunken Rats of Bihar

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Or: the other side of prohibition

ON OCTOBER 1ST, the excise department of Bihar’s Kaimur district received orders to destroy 11,000 litres of alcohol it had seized since the state government imposed prohibition in April 2016. It was a standard procedure, conducted every few weeks or months, subject to the approval of the authorities concerned in the district administration or the judiciary. But a lot of this stock was over two years old and the long duration of negligence had taken its toll. As workers opened up their warehouse to do the job they had been assigned, they noticed layers of dust on the liquor cartons. Some even reeked of leaked beer. They traced the smell to a few dozen aluminium cans and cardboard cartons of Haywards 5000, many with holes on their sides.

“It looks like rats have nibbled at them,” Kumari Anupama Singh, the city’s sub-divisional magistrate, told the local media. “Some six-seven cartons [with 191 beer cans] seem to have been destroyed like that.” Nawal Kishor Choudhary, the divisional magistrate, concurred but ordered an inquiry anyway. The next day, reports in national dailies held ‘alcohol-craving rats’ responsible.

It wasn’t the first time that officials seemed to be blaming rats for administrative lapses. Only last year, at a meeting of Patna Police officers, many had accused rodents of drinking or destroying nearly 900,000 litres of seized alcohol in their respective police stations. The claims provoked scientific scrutiny, administrative action and much mirth. “It is possible that if rats stay at a place where water is not available, they can consume liquor alternatively,” said Gopal Sharma, a scientist at Zoological Survey of India, Patna, “but I do not agree with claims that the rodents can guzzle hundreds of litres of liquor. They cannot drink so much as they have a natural aversion to high concentration of alcohol.” Manu Maharaj, the senior superintendent of police chairing the meet, was incensed and ordered random breathalyser tests to be conducted on his juniors in the future. Columnists like Sagarika Ghose tried to contextualise it in Indian culture: ‘After all,’ she wrote, ‘India is known as a religious land where many worship the holy spirit. Since for most people life’s not exactly wine and roses, can they be blamed for occasionally wanting to be high flyers?’

In subsequent months, the criminal repertoire of Bihar’s rats diversified. Earlier this year, officials at Nalanda Medical College and Hospital in Patna said rodents were responsible for empty or missing bottles of cough medicines, saline water and syringes kept in their storeroom. In September last year, Rajiv Ranjan Singh, Bihar’s water resources minister, said they were causing massive floods by damaging river embankments. His department’s engineers, when confronted, maintained innocence and said it wasn’t their job to tame rats. RTI activist Shiv Prakash Rai, who had exposed multiple corruption scams in Bihar, acknowledged the ingenuity of this approach: “They know rats can’t defend themselves.”

Likewise, Kaimur’s officials too stood their ground. Most holes in the beer cans were roughly cut, they pointed out. Given the hygiene standards at excise warehouses and police godowns, rodents were bound to take advantage (although, strictly speaking, their dietary patterns didn’t quite confirm the allegations). But what about cans which had almost circular looking holes? Was it possible that those in charge of securing the seized intoxicants were selling it to bootleggers? After all, there had been numerous cases of the same since prohibition was enforced. No comments were forthcoming. So in the first week of October, I travelled to Kaimur to see if those who smelt a rat also smelt rot.

PROHIBITION WAS ONE of the key promises of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Assembly campaign in 2015. With Bihar’s per capita income—at Rs 30,000—just about a third of India’s average, a ban on liquor was portrayed as a measure that would not only raise the disposable income of every household, but also reduce the state’s cases of violent crimes, including those of domestic violence. Its stiff penalties were meant to serve as a deterrent: drinking could mean a jail-term up to 10 years, the house or vehicle used for the purpose could be attached by the state, and an entire village could be held liable if liquor was found in its public places. The ban also meant an annual revenue loss of nearly Rs 5,000 crore for the state. But sniffing its potency to sway the electorate, Bihar’s fractious political forces supported it unanimously. In April 2016, Bihar became India’s third ‘dry state’.

If the quantity of seized liquor is small, it is drained into nullahs. But if it exceeds a few litres, it is crushed by a bulldozer and then burnt

Nearly two-and-a-half years after it was imposed, the spectre of prohibition looms large. In Kaimur, posters outside hospitals and government offices call for de-addiction while political banners congratulate Nitish Kumar for persisting with his clampdown. Prohibition has resulted in women’s empowerment and raised household savings, these banners claim. A government study earlier this year backed this up by saying that sales of dairy, honey, saris and dress material had shot through the roof. “If we see any man drunk now, we make him do uthha-baithhi,” a female resident of Khaje Etwar Saray village in Nalanda told the web portal last year. “And if he still doesn’t listen, we get together and slap him, even whack him with a jhadoo (broom). We women are quite clear: there will be no drinking in our village.”

But despite legal and social censure, alcohol is still available across Bihar. The desi kind is produced locally, often in slums, forests or remote villages, and ‘angrezi’ is smuggled in from states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and West Bengal and home-delivered at double the retail prices. The state government has lodged over 133,000 criminal cases since the ban, but most of these were against consumers, not producers or smugglers. Media reports allege that Mahadalits are disproportionately targeted and speak of a parallel economy of bootleggers.

Today, large consignments of liquor are smuggled in truck cabins, battery packs, tyre tubes, hay-stacks or by using vegetables as camouflage. Smaller packages are ferried by bulls, children or women who abandon the highways and arterial roads for jungles and hilly terrain to avoid being caught. A member of child welfare committee told Indian Express earlier this year that school-going children aged 15-18 receive between Rs 300 and Rs 500 to carry liquor in water-bottles across state borders. At least 20 per cent of children lodged in the state’s 11 remand homes were caught carrying liquor, the official added. While Nitish Kumar has diluted some of the more draconian penalties since, he has ruled out lifting the ban. “Murders are committed, despite a law against it,” he told the media last month. “That does not mean the law has failed.”

Kaimur, which has a population of 1 million, is within close range of Jharkhand as well as Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, making it particularly attractive to smugglers. What makes it worse is the complicity of local authorities, especially the police. “Without police knowledge, nothing is possible,” admits Suman Kumar, additional collector at Kaimur. “Most of the seizures we make are because of local intelligence,” he says. “After all, how many vehicles can you check? We often hear of cases where the liquor mafia tip us off and let one of their trucks be nabbed. While you’re patting yourself on the back for making the catch, four other trucks get away.” The problem with prohibition, he believes, is the way it has been implemented: “People should have been sensitised and taken into confidence. If there was no demand, there wouldn’t be any supply.”

Suman Kumar was tasked with investigating the goings-on at the ‘rat-infested warehouse’ that had empty and damaged beer cans. The excise department’s claims, he says, were consistent with what he saw. Canned beer is susceptible to being affected by the hot weather conditions prevalent in the state. At times, beer spoils and leaks out, attracting rats which then nibble away at the cans. Indeed, soon after the initial reports, the excise department had printed out the fermentation process of beer off the internet to explain to the media the plausibility of that having happened.

“There’s always possibility of officials pilfering the stocks,” he says. “Here, I found no reason to suspect foul play.”

“ When officials are caught, they make up excuses like rats drinking it. In most cases, they're either selling it or drinking it themselves” VS Dubey, former chief secretary of Bihar and Jharkhand

But what about the cans where the holes appeared man-made? Also, how is it possible that the cartons kept on upper levels were also gnawed at? In response, Suman Kumar directs me to Pradeep Kumar, superintendent of Kaimur’s excise department. “We’ll have to put in a CBI inquiry for this,” Pradeep says glibly. Later, he admits that the presence of rats was a matter of conjecture since he hadn’t seen any himself.

“But look,” he says, “do you have rats in your house? How about bugs or lizards or cockroaches? If you can have them in your house despite cleaning it everyday, this is but a warehouse.”

Will there then be any efforts to clean it regularly? I ask. “But it is only a warehouse,” Pradeep Kumar protests.

SOON AFTER THE Prohibition Act, police across several cities in Bihar held an unusual oath-taking ceremony. District police chiefs stood on parade grounds and read aloud vows for hundreds of personnel in front of them to repeat: “Neither will we drink, nor will we let others drink.” The following year, the law was amended to also forbid state government employees from drinking in public or showing up inebriated on duty anywhere—inside or outside Bihar. It seemed a reaction to a jibe by the BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi who had claimed that nearly half the ruling alliance’s members in Bihar were “habitual boozers”. And yet, there have been numerous instances of public servants doing both in the past two-and-a-half years. At least two dozen policemen have been suspended or sacked for consuming or selling alcohol.

Last May, on the same day the Patna cops made headlines for claiming rats were ‘drinking’ alcohol they had seized, a drunk sub-inspector from Muzaffarpur hid behind a tree and threatened to shoot his colleagues when his senior officer tried to perform a breathalyser test on him. This October, a couple of days after fingers were pointed at rats again for destroying liquor stocks in Kaimur, a video emerged of two police personnel from Gopalganj plotting to sell 25 cartons of alcohol worth Rs 40 lakh that they had seized earlier. An official of the state excise department tells me that while it might sound prudent for the state to hawk the alcohol in other states to make up for revenue losses, electoral concerns and moral dilemmas stop the administration from doing it. So they have no choice but destroy the alcohol—and pay for it too.

In the second week of October, I went to the excise department warehouse in Kaimur to take a look at one such destruction process. As is routine, alcohol seized from across the district is pooled together and their quantities checked to prevent any theft. Royal Stag, a brand of whisky, is one of the most popular kinds of ‘videsi’ liquor they seize, a constable tells me. Others include tetra packs of 8 PM whisky, nicknamed after the soft-drink Frooti, and the locally produced toddy and mahua. If the seizure isn’t a lot, the alcohol is drained into the nullahs by the roadside. If it exceeds a few hundred litres, it is run over by a bulldozer.

As officials start trooping in, seats are vacated in accordance with the police hierarchy. The constable jumps to his feet at the sight of a police inspector, an excise department deputy offers his chair to his superintendent. The rest hover about, squatting or standing, waiting for orders in deferential silence in front of their superiors. The inventory count begins at 3 pm, four hours after scheduled, in front of the police and excise officials. Sacks with seized alcohol are emptied onto the ground and the bottles are re-counted. The officials look on disinterested even as dozens of empty bottles of desi alcohol are counted in. An hour later, the bulldozer arrives.

Soon, a small crowd of passersby gather to witness the event. Awaiting its fate is 600 litres of alcohol worth over Rs 1 lakh, both locally made and illegally smuggled. For nearly 10 minutes, the bulldozer crushes bottles and flattens tetrapaks while the air acquires the thick bittersweet smell of stale booze. At the end of it, the plastic bottles, cardboard cartons and glass shards are set on fire. “Ideally, we could have recycled these,” Pradeep Kumar, the excise department superintendent, tells me. “But that’s not a part of the procedure.”

Sub-Divisional Magistrate Kumari Anupama Singh refuses to give a soundbyte to the local media. “The last time, you made it all about the rats. Someone even wrote, ‘As they opened up the warehouse, the officials found drunk rats stumbling about the dark’.” My request to see the warehouse is also turned down. Again, I am told, it isn’t part of the procedure.

“The problem with enforcing prohibition is that nearly 95 per cent of the officials are corrupt,” says VS Dubey, former chief secretary of the undivided Bihar and Jharkhand. “When they seize alcohol, they’re looking to make money out of it. If you bribe them, you are let off. If you can’t, you’re arrested. When they are caught doing that, they make up excuses like rats drinking it. In most cases, they’re either selling it or drinking it themselves.”

Prohibition in Bihar can only work if its neighbouring states do it too, he adds. “Otherwise, there will only be blame games and false claims.”