Prohibition has hit the JD-U vote-base.
Satyavrat Mishra reports from Patna.
The occasion was the Yuva Sankalp Sammelan, or the youth conference, organised by the ruling Janata Dal -United in Patna to mark World Environment Day on June 5.
Giving the keynote address was Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
In the hour-long speech, Kumar enumerated his achievements, which included the ambitious student credit card and skill-development schemes, promised rule of law and targeted his political rivals.
Then, towards the end, he made an important announcement.
Kumar hinted that his government was planning to tweak some of the provisions of the stringent Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016. He, however, didn’t elaborate on the changes he had in mind.
Kumar has been an ardent supporter of prohibition.
"The poor and the downtrodden who were earlier engaged in liquor business have been given alternative means of livelihood and they are happy," he told party workers at the conference.
A few days later, the chief minister mentioned that the process of tweaking the law was well underway and helping the government bring about the change was a panel of top bureaucrats, headed by Chief Secretary Deepak Kumar, in consultation with legal experts.
According to sources, the state government is planning to make some of the offences bailable, unless the suspect is a repeat offender.
The question on everyone's mind is: Why now?
Why Kumar, after his repeated claims that no one could ever force him to change his mind on prohibition, suddenly did an about-face?
Kumar is facing much criticism at home from opposition and civil rights groups for his over-zealousness in imposing prohibition.
In contrast to the official narrative, they say the poor faced the brunt of the government crackdown.
At present, any transgression of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, is a non-bailable offence, and the police have been given extraordinary powers, including the power to search premises without a warrant merely on grounds of suspicion.
Till June 17, more than 0.14 million people have been arrested and sent to jail under the punitive provisions of the law in the state.
It means since the law came into effect in April 2016, on an average 179 people are being arrested every day in Bihar under this legislation.
Moreover, state excise officials and policemen conducted 777,690 raids and more than 0.11 million cases have been lodged till June 17.
This results into an average of 962 raids and 150 FIRs every day.
The state government, however, contests that the actual number of those incarcerated is fewer than 10,000.
'I feel pity for the people who make ridiculous allegations that over 0.1 million people are in jail. Of the total number of people arrested, only 8,123 are actually in jail. When people involved in bootlegging, importing and supplying alcohol are caught, their caste is not seen. Those arrested belong to all castes and the law is same for everyone,' Kumar said in April at a function to mark the completion of two years of prohibition in Bihar.
Political commentators and senior bureaucrats were quick to see the statement as a sign of the government's failure.
To them, it underlined the failure of the state government to curb the flourishing illegal liquor trade in Bihar.
"It shows how easy it has become to get bail under this Act. If out of 0.14 million, more than 93 per cent of the suspects manage to get bail, then what's the use of such a legislation? These numbers show the poor state of prosecutions by the state government," said a senior state bureaucrat.
One senior excise official said prohibition has had just the opposite of its intended effect.
It was meant to end the woes of the poor, women and the marginalised, but instead has now become the biggest cause of their exploitation.
"Upper castes and rich have influence over the police and local administration, but the Dalits, Mahadalit, the economically backward class and marginalised don't enjoy the same clout. Therefore, they are thrown in jail and their families are destroyed. What do you think would happen to their wives and children? How can you expect a person whose daily income is less than Rs 200 to hire a lawyer to prove his innocence in the court?" the official asked on the condition of anonymity.
Vikas Kumar (name changed on request) is in his mid-20s. He works as a liquor courier in Patna.
"It's a risky business; there is no denying that. We take orders from old customers and prefer deliveries at homes during the evening rush hour to avoid police checking. We service new customers only after a solid recommendation from a couple of known old buyers," he said.
However, these days his business is facing tough competition from rival groups.
"Earlier we used to charge anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 2,500 for a bottle. This has come down in recent months. Today, liquor is available for Rs 1,500 to Rs 1,800. Many new gangs have joined the liquor trade for the easy money it provides. The police, meanwhile, have turned their focus on bigger fish or joined hands with them," alleged the courier.
Senior police officials, deny the claim of a flourishing liquor trade in Bihar.
They point at the number of seizure of illegal liquor in the state.
According to government figures, more than 2.1 million litres of Indian Made Foreign Liquor and 0.93 million litres of country-made liquor have been seized by the police and excise officials between April 2016 and June 17, 2018.
One would expect that after the massive crackdown the seizure figures would be on the decline.
But that's not the case.
In April last year, the state government confiscated 7,299 litres of IMFL and 7,513 litres of country liquor.
The numbers went up to 16,302 litres of IMFL and 12,330 litres of country liquor in May 2018.
"Since prohibition was imposed in Bihar, not a day has gone by when a large cache of liquor has not been seized by the police and/or the excise department. Criminals are not deterred. Even the bigger ones have now joined the trade," said a source in the excise department.
After several complaints and instances of foul play, the state government has finally created a new post of assistant director general of police (prohibition) with the sole purpose of strict implementation of the alcohol ban.
A central call centre number is being circulated in the state for people to give tip-offs.
Every complaint on that number about a possible sale or consumption of alcohol would be recorded and the station house officer of the nearest police station would be asked to investigate the matter. He would have two hours to report back to the police headquarters.
After that the headquarters would call back the complainant and ask about the action taken on the ground.
If the SHO failed to report the matter, then the local deputy superintendent of police would be asked to report it.
If the DSP too failed, the superintendent of police would have to report within 24 hours.
Police officials say this maze of reporting would impact the law and order situation.
"Local thanas and policemen would be deluged with complaints concerning prohibition and other criminals would have an easy time. Already, the instances of rapes, murders and riots are on the rise as compared to last year's figures. This new system would further complicate the situation," said a retired Indian Police Service officer.
Prohibition is now starting to have an adverse effect, both politically and administratively, on Kumar's government.
While the idea of a ban is welcomed by women and the elderly, most seem to agree that the law is draconian in nature.
The government is now facing a backlash from several communities, especially the poor and the backward who do not have the muscle power to secure bail for their family members languishing in jail.
Opposition parties, especially the Rashtriya Janata Dal and former state chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi's Hindustani Awam Morcha, are accusing the chief minister of being too harsh.
The RJD has even announced that if it comes to power in the next assembly election, many of the penal provisions of prohibition will be withdrawn.
The prohibition has hit the vote-base of the JD-U which claims to enjoy the support of the economically backward and the Mahadalits.
After its recent poor show in the assembly and Parliamentary by-polls, many leaders have privately asked Kumar to amend the law.
According to sources, the state government is planning to move an amendment bill in the coming monsoon session.
Kumar seems to be paving the way for it. For the first time, on June 5, he acknowledged the prohibition law was being misused by some.
Even so, he is unlikely to go as far as doing away with the ban altogether.