Corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, and cops love liquor ban, for it means big money. It is easy to imagine the magnitude of corruption in a large state where alcohol is banned and yet every sixth man regularly gets drunk.

Dozens of deaths in the suspected spurious liquor consumption case in West Champaran and Gopalganj districts of Bihar once again highlight the perils of prohibition. It is a policy that is patently illiberal and invariably unimplementable, and yet Indian leaders are obsessed with it. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, our political masters’ attitude towards alcohol is, to put it mildly, irrational.
Several persons are battling for their lives in hospitals and doctors said that some of the victims have lost their eyesight, The Times Of India reported. This is not the first hooch tragedy in the state—and, if the liquor ban is not lifted, may not be the last.
Prohibition is ethically reprehensible, especially in a democratic country, for it limits the choice of free citizens. The ultimate purpose of democracy is to expand the sphere of liberty, whereas a ban on alcohol does the opposite. What adds insult to the injury is the fact that politicians—surely not the most moral men and women humankind can boast of—not just proscribe booze but also moralize against its abuse. And few spectacles in the world are as ugly as canting politicians.
Worse, they remain self-righteous, not letting facts and common sense disturb them from their smug sanctimony. Responding to the recent hooch deaths, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said, “We imposed the ban on liquor in the state as alcohol is a dirty thing. Ill effects of alcohol get multiplied when consumed in an adulterated form. I know majority of people are in favour of prohibition in the state. A handful of residents violate it.”
The “handful” is actually quite a lot, Mr Kumar. Your government banned liquor in 2016, but the National Family Health Survey showed that Biharis consume more alcohol than Maharashtrians. As per the National Family Health Survey 2019-20, as many as 15.5% men (above 15 years of age) had drinks in Bihar.
Yet, prohibition rules are very strict. According to the TOI report, “After consuming the illegal liquor, some of the victims tried to hide the fact and gave wrong information in the hospitals. However, according to a villager [in West Champaran], after they informed the local police about the deaths the cops reached the village and forcibly cremated the deceased.”
The ruling coalition in Bihar, however, is busy making pro-forma statements. “The investigation is underway. Officers concerned are working on it. The locals are not ready to talk about it. We are closely monitoring the situation,” Bihar Deputy CM Renu Devi told a news agency.
Meanwhile RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav has stepped up his attack on the state government over the liquor ban. “Due to liquor ban, thousands of people are dying every year in Bihar and ruling party leaders are running a parallel economy of Rs 20,000 crore in Bihar. The Bihar government is targeting poor and Dalit people in liquor trade and sending them to jail. Bihar Police turns out corrupt and torturous,” he tweeted.
Yadav has been against prohibition for quite a long time. In October 2017, he had said, “Prohibition has been a big failure and a complete flop in the state as home delivery of liquor is happening in Bihar now.”
His opposition to prohibition, however, did not translate into effective action. It needs to be mentioned here that Yadav was Kumar’s ally when prohibition was announced, but he did not make it an issue.
Evidently, it is politically very difficult to oppose prohibition; by doing so, a politician is immediately dubbed as profligate, even a stooge of the “liquor mafia”. For political debate in India reeks of sentimentalism and sanctimoniousness.
Therefore, it is always difficult to oppose prohibition on moral and philosophical grounds, to say that it is an infringement of individual liberty and an assault on human dignity, to assert that it is moral policing, to point out that liquor ban is dirigisme gone berserk. Unsurprisingly, it is opposed, when it is, on practical grounds—as Yadav does.
Prohibition is also a powerful weapon because in it idealism and thievery blend beautifully. We know what Mahatma Gandhi said about alcohol; all prohibition protagonists underline that; Nitish Kumar recently said, “It was Mahatma Gandhi’s wish.”
Corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, and cops also love liquor ban, for it means big money. It is easy to imagine the magnitude of corruption in a large state where alcohol is banned and yet every sixth man regularly gets drunk. An illustration: thousands of litres of liquor confiscated by police couldn’t be traced. Police explanation: rats drank it. In Nitish’s Bihar even rats are sozzled. Some prohibition indeed.
Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a freelance journalist.