Nitish Kumar is hard at work, trying to implement the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 with the help of latest technology, including aerial vigil through drone cameras, to fulfill his poll promise to Bihar’s women voters.
Quietly, he has also been trying to appease the Scheduled Caste (SC) Pasi community, whose traditional profession of toddy sale was affected by the liquor ban. Pasis are about 0.75 per cent of the state’s population.
On Tuesday, the Bihar Cabinet gave the nod to a scheme, providing Rs 1 lakh assistance to those who have been financially hit by the prohibition, including toddy sellers. The assistance, however, will be for encouraging the production and sale of neera, the palm juice tapped fresh before sunrise that can be fermented to make toddy. Though the government had announced the Rs 1 lakh assistance to encourage neera sales in December 2021, this is the first time a budgetary provision has been devoted for the purpose.
S Siddharth, an additional chief secretary at the state cabinet secretariat, told reporters on Tuesday: “The Cabinet has given the nod for a budgetary provision of Rs 610 crore under the scheme, which will give a prospective neera seller a one-time assistance of Rs 1 lakh.”
The Pasis are the community that are mainly involved in the profession of tapping neera. After the Gopalganj hooch tragedy of August 2018, in which 19 people were killed, the district administration had got all palm and date trees felled. Later, the Patna High Court came down heavily on the felling of palm trees, saying it was not the proper way to implement or enforce prohibition.
With deft social engineering, Nitish Kumar has built a dedicated voter base among Dalits and EBCs. As most of the four lakh people who have been booked under the prohibition law till September 2022, according to Bihar Police data, are from among the SCs or EBCs, the CM had all the more reasons to revisit the liquor law, which has seen three amendments since its legislation. Earlier, a first-time drinker could escape imprisonment by paying a fine ranging between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000.
Boosting neera sales is more about gaining and retaining his political constituency, than about trying to earn revenue. The government has been looking to rehabilitate erstwhile toddy sellers with a definite political purpose. Ever since 2017, the Nitish government has been trying to find ways to promote neera production. They have already clarified that neera is not toddy. The CM himself promoted neera use by remarking that it is a rich source of glucose and hence good for health.
With deft social engineering, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has built a dedicated voter base among Dalits and EBCs. As most of the 4 lakh people who have been booked under the prohibition law until September 2022, according to Bihar Police data, are from SC or EBC communities, Nitish had all the more reasons to revisit the liquor law, which has seen three amendments since its legislation.
He gave formal shape to the idea when he sent a 16-member team to Pune to study the process of neera production in 2018. Members of Jeevika and other experts studied neera-tapping and processing thoroughly, and submitted a report. In 2019, the state government first announced an assistance of Rs 1,000 a month for those interested in the sale of neera. In December 2021, it followed up with the announcement of a one-time, Rs 1 lakh assistance to a prospective neera seller, from the CM Relief Fund. This has now been formalised under a proper scheme with an annual budget.
A government official said: “Though some neera shops have been functional for a year or so, the numbers are still negligible. There is a need to create awareness among toddy sellers to differentiate between neera and toddy. The scheme will guide prospective neera sellers to carry out tapping before sunrise, because once the sun is out, the neera ferments quickly and becomes toddy.”