To combat violations of its prohibition law, Bihar has now put the onus on government-appointed chowkidars, who could face ‘disciplinary action’ if they fail to be ‘attentive’. Ram, who has been in the job for 36 years, wonders if the government is asking too much from them
In the 36 years he has been in service, says Rajballabh Ram, a government-appointed chowkidar at the Faridpur panchayat in Patna district, he has never felt the pressure of the job: Not when chowkidars kept watch all night, looking out for dacoits bent on raiding Bihar villages in the ’80s; not when being tasked to collect intelligence for the local police station; and not now, when the Bihar government has made those like Ram liable for punishment for any violation of prohibition in their respective jurisdictions.
Instead, says the 56-year-old, he has become more “attentive and alert” ever since the government issued a circular on November 3, which states that chowkidars would face “disciplinary and legal action” if they failed to be “fully attentive” to the “storage, distribution, sale and consumption of liquor in their areas”.
The circular, along with the creation of the post of Inspector General of Police (Prohibition), is part of the Bihar government’s efforts to strictly enforce prohibition, introduced in 2016. The latest measures came after four people died of consuming hooch on October 28 in Rohtas village, about 160 km away.
“A lot has changed since I joined the force. Those were days of lawlessness with incidents of dacoity and massacres. In a sense, our job is less tougher now even if policing has become more intense,” says Ram, who took up the job in 1981. It’s 7 am this Sunday and Ram has already made a small round of his native Uchoudi village.
In addition to Uchoudi, two other villages of Faridpur panchayat — Harijan Tola and Shahar Rampur — fall under Ram’s watch. With Faridpur being relatively a large panchayat, with 10 villages under it, there are three posts of chowkidars, but two of them are vacant, with the incumbents having retired in the past couple of years. “Though I have not officially been asked to look after other villages, I do have to deliver court notices and take a visiting policeman to villages beyond my designated areas,” says Ram, whose primary duties include delivering posts or information from the police station to people and keeping an eye out on those who figure in police station records.
As he sips tea, Ram proudly shows off his pucca house, which he began constructing in 1991. He has five sons, three of whom are unemployed and depend on his salary of Rs 24,400 a month. “I could become a chowkidar but my sons have not been able to get a job,” he rues.
At 7.30 am, Ram sets off for another round of Uchoudi village, now in his khakhi uniform and a customary white turban. As he walks, he says that he recently got two people arrested for drinking country-made liquor in the fields. “While one got bail, the other, Sunder Das, is still in jail,” he says. “Since Sunder’s arrest, his family blames me for it. I tried to reason with them that this is my job and I would get suspended for not doing it,” says Ram, to no avail. Most villagers back him though, he adds.
Along the path, Ram points to an open field with paddy crop ready for harvest and says he first observes people for a while and doesn’t immediately pass on suspicious information to the local police. “It is only when they keep visiting a particular spot that I call the Naubatpur police. A raid is then planned and I have to join the police team to show them the exact spot,” says Ram. According to him, even before the circular was issued, he had passed along information regarding at least half a dozen instances of sale and consumption of liquor in the last 18 months.
At around 9 am, retired chowkidar Jagdish Paswan (62) joins Ram at the end of Uchoudi village. While Ram earlier said he wasn’t worried about the circular, he tells Paswan, “We can be punished if any case under liquor law is not reported. I wonder how they expect us to know if someone is drinking inside his house. The government is asking too much from us.” Paswan reminds Ram of at least three instances when they escaped mob fury during raids in Faridpur to catch motorcycle thieves and ganja smokers.
The duo stop at a bridge of a dry canal outside Uchoudi village, where retired UP police inspector S D Ram (71) is basking in the sun bare-chested, applying mustard oil on his body. The retired inspector has a word of praise for his village chowkidar. “He has been alert and moves around. I have always banked on information passed on by chowkidars during my career. Seldom does an inspector think of carrying out raids without taking along chowkidars,” says S D Ram, adding that chowkidars no longer just stay awake (“jagte raho”) at night, mandatory till the late 1980s, when UP and Bihar were rife with dacoity cases.
Rajballabh and Jagdish immediately recall the terror of Bilai Singh and Deb Singh, who they say were feared bandits of Naubatpur till the early ’90s. “Every night, we along with some villagers would stay wake in turn. People would keep brickbats at homes. Police would find it difficult to patrol all areas,” recalls Ram.
Kedar Dubey, a villager in his mid-60s, joins the discussion, saying while he supports Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s prohibition efforts, he has his doubts about its implementation. “There has been a reduction in domestic violence cases and brawls in public. But the government must find a way to stop the clandestine sale and manufacture of liquor. A chowkidar has his limitations.”
After a while, Ram takes leave of the village elders and heads along the bushy banks of the canal, keeping an eye out for empty liquor bottles. He stops at a gaping massive hole in the embankment. “These areas are potential sites to find those looking to drink away from the public gaze. As there is less movement of people on this route, alcoholics can choose such a spot. But once they spot me here, they will look for other places,” says Ram, adding that at least 30-40 per cent of village youth used to drink before the ban.
“Most of them seem to have stopped drinking now. There have been a few instances of people buying IMFL but most rely on country liquor, made of mahua. With fresh toddy (neera) being kept out of liquor category for now, habitual drinkers are consuming toddy,” says Ram, moving further down the canal embankment.
As he searches for empty liquor bottles and plastic pouches, Ram admits it has been tough watching fellow villagers. “Very often, most villagers do not share all the information with me. But I have my people in every mohalla to tip me off on any information important for policing,” says Ram, who reports to the police station at least twice a week or when called by police station in-charge.
At lunch time, Ram stops at a village temple to rest. “One good thing about the temple is that drinkers are not found around it,” says the chowkidar, who spends the afternoon at home with his family. He may take another round of the village late in the evening, he says, adding that with Faridpur panchayat having over 10,000 population, he hopes the two vacant posts of chowkidars are filled soon.
“The government thinks we are the best people to make prohibition a success. One chowkidar of Rohtas was recently suspended. We had anyway been walking, we are on our toes now,” says Ram as the villagers around him burst into laughter.