While Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar portrays the lower castes as the primary beneficiaries of prohibition, the figures of jail occupancy tell exactly the opposite story. Two years after the policy was introduced, an investigation in this paper has revealed, a disproportionately high proportion of OBCs, SCs and STs is behind bars on charges related to liquor. STs constitute only 1.3 per cent of the state’s population, but more than five times that figure have been arrested. One in four of Bihar’s citizens are OBCs, but over one-third of those cooling their heels in jail are from that category. The pattern is sustained across all of the backward and depressed castes, who appear to have borne the brunt of prohibition. Ironically, about 80 per cent of those arrested were regular drinkers or alcoholics. Meanwhile, the liquor mafias, which should have been targeted as a priority, appear to have been spared the attention of the law. Internationally, the enforcement of prohibition has focused on cutting off supply. Punishing consumers has generally been a secondary priority.
The data, drawn fom 21 jails and sub-jails under three circles in Bihar, was apparently compiled to map drinking habits to caste and socio-economic indicators. However, there are obvious fallacies at work here. It is easier for the police to sweep a dragnet through poor areas, and the catch will be reliably bigger than similar raids on more prosperous zones. Besides, the poor are more vulnerable to police action and may not have the capacity to seek bail, which would be reflected in a disproportionate number of arrests. Understandably, no one is claiming responsibility for commissioning this census of those arrested for violating prohibition. Both the chief minister’s office and police officials have denied knowledge of it, preferring to classify it as “unofficial”. The nanny state, which ventured upon an ill-conceived policy with a poor success rate, could not even keep its focus right.
But whatever its status within the administrative system, the survey has had the effect of revealing that history is repeating itself: Prohibition is visiting pain on the very people it was supposed to help, the poorest, most disempowered sections of society. The promise of easy pickings among consumers appears to be diverting the attention of the enforcement machinery from suppliers, though politicians and officials must know that the key intervention of prohibition is to turn off the tap, rather than to punish a thirsty public. For the Nitish Kumar government, to continue to launch punitive actions principally on consumers, simply because it is easier, would only generate more embarrassing data.