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‘Poor are dying’ — Nitish makes U-turn, announces Rs 4 lakh ex gratia for hooch victims’ families

Patna: Setting aside his tough stand on liquor, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar Monday announced to provide Rs 4 lakh ex gratia each to those who lost their lives in hooch poisonings after the imposition of prohibition of alcohol in April 2016.

“It’s the poor who are dying due to consumption of liquor. It is unfortunate. But they are also a part of our society,” the Bihar chief minister said, adding that he still was strongly in favour of prohibition.

“But since the last three years I have witnessed people dying due to consumption of liquor despite my persuasion not to take alcohol,” he said, stressing that the chief secretary was directed to hold a meeting and decide the formalities.

According to informed sources, the affected families will have to apply to the district magistrate and prove that the death has occurred due to liquor consumption.

Made in the backdrop of the hooch tragedy at Motihari in East Champaran district, Nitish’s announcement was a U-turn from his stand in December, when over 100 died in Saran district after consuming illicit liquor.

As the tragedy occurred when the Winter session of the Bihar assembly was on, the Opposition had piled up pressure on Nitish. But he had ruled out any compensation, saying that “Jo piyega, so marega (Those who drink will die).”

The CM had then also brushed aside the plea of Congress leader Ajit Sharma in the Assembly for a review of the anti-liquor law.

Also Read: Nitish ‘silently’ paving way for jailed ex-MP & strongman Anand Mohan’s return? Change in jail manual spurs row

Why Nitish is on the backfoot

BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Sushil Kumar Modi told ThePrint that Nitish was forced to take a back step as the prohibition was affecting him politically.

“The worst hit by the law are the poor belonging to Dalit and backward communities. A large number of voters who have been hit by the prohibition rule are now starting to vote against him, and this was witnessed in Kurhani bypoll in December last year. He has been under tremendous pressure from even his allies. Not only Congress, HAM chief Jitan Ram Manjhi has been openly demanding the scrapping of the law,” the former deputy CM added.

Welcoming the announcement, Modi said there was a catch to it. “The state has been suppressing the number of deaths in hooch tragedies. The human rights commission put the Saran hooch tragedy at 76, while the state is claiming 43. In most cases, there is no post-mortem and how does one expect the poor to come up with relevant documents,” he said.

Since April 1, 2016 — when prohibition law was introduced — Bihar has been witnessing small and big hooch tragedies. In 2023, according to local media, the death toll has already crossed 40.

Diluting the law

When the law was enforced in 2016, it was dubbed draconian as it had provisions having jail sentences up to 10 years, sealing of campuses where liquor was found and confiscation of vehicles.

According to the excise department, around 4.5 lakh people have been arrested until now for violation of liquor laws.

In 2022, the Supreme Court had pulled up the Bihar government for jamming the judicial system with anti-liquor cases. The eastern state then decided to impose a fine of Rs 2,000-Rs 5,000 for first-time offenders, instead of sending them to jail.

“Now that Nitish has softened up on the anti-liquor laws, there is hope that the entire law will be relooked. “The purpose for which prohibition was imposed has not been achieved. On the other hand, use of drugs among the youth has increased. It is time for Nitishji to take a relook into the whole policy because it is the downtrodden who have suffered the most,” said Upendra Prasad, a former MLC and member of the national executive of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

“It is time for a complete review though it does not mean complete withdrawal. But even among the ruling alliance, there are differences. Tejashwi doesn’t have the same passion for prohibition as Nitish. I have heard from youngsters that once Tejashwi comes to power, prohibition will be scrapped. Manjhi is making noises. There are political signals Nitish cannot afford to ignore,” N. K. Choudhary, a former professor of Patna University, said.

(Edited by Tony Rai)

Also Read: ‘Sad, but people shouldn’t drink,’ says Nitish as suspected hooch tragedy claims 8 lives in Bihar

Source: The Print

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