Bihar’s liquor ban was spearheaded by excise minister Abdul Jalil Mastan. He talks about the state’s plans to overcome the challenges in implementing this difficult move.
Bihar’s liquor ban was spearheaded by excise minister Abdul Jalil Mastan. The six-time Congress MLA talks about the state’s plans to overcome the challenges in implementing this difficult move – from providing alternative employment opportunities to opening de-addiction centres.
What made you enact a law which completely banned liquor in Bihar?
Chief minister Nitish Kumar had promised during his assembly polls campaign to ban liquor. There was a strong demand from people, especially women, to stop the sale of liquor in the state. Nitish Kumar, after winning the election, showed confidence in me and I was made excise minister in his cabinet. On the very first day of joining his government, I gave my views on liquor ban which was completely backed by Nitish Kumar. The chief minister wanted to ban it through legislation, and so a new excise policy was brought before the cabinet.
On April 1, country-made liquor was banned and on April 4, it was decided to ban all forms of liquor. So, the cabinet approved it on April 5 and we decided to make it functional on the ground as we knew that this was a challenge.
Why was there a hurry to ban liquor in one go though it had been decided to ban it in phases?
We got massive support after banning country-made liquor on April 1. We had then decided to sell English wine through 656 beverage corporation outlets. We found it counter-productive as people were found quarrelling over the purchase of liquor and they started alleging that we had double standards. On one hand, we were closing the sale of country-made liquor and on the other we were opening new outlets to sell English wine. People, especially women, opposed it; so we decided to go for a complete ban in the state and did it successfully.
But in his previous tenure the CM gave licences easily to sell liquor and as a result liquor started being sold in every nook and corner. Why this change of heart?
The chief minister faced tough questions during his campaign for the assembly elections; so he promised to the people, especially women voters, that he will do something serious about the issue. Nitish Kumar had in his mind to legislate the ban on liquor and he did it beautifully. I simply reminded him of his promise during the campaign as both of us had the belief that the government is there for the welfare of people and ban on liquor will benefit a poor state like Bihar.
But with this move, isn’t it that you are taking political mileage as the same chief minister had given licences to several people for opening liquor shops in every corner of Bihar?
We believe in the welfare state and our agenda is to work for the welfare of people. The chief minister realised that the widespread liquor business in villages was ruining generations, with women suffering the most. It proves our agenda of good governance and it has nothing to do with politics. Opposition parties are indulging in cheap politics by misguiding some people, especially from certain castes, to gain votes. But they will not succeed because the government has total support from the public.
How are you planning to make up for the revenue loss?
The state has a number of other sources to make up for the loss. The state’s primary objective is to look after the welfare of its own people and not to worry about revenue loss. The chief minister has a clear vision for development and he has various ideas to make up for the loss.
Today, by merely checking the sale tax defaults, we have increased our revenue significantly. The government has various other resources to make up for the loss.
What is the estimate of the revenue loss and how will you deal with those who were into the liquor business?
We have suffered a loss of Rs 4,000 crore and we have a plan to make up for it. We have decided to give licences to sell milk to such people who were into liquor business. The government has decided to allocate Sudha centres to them. Big manufacturers of liquor have started making ethanol, instead of spirit, which is much needed in petrochemical industries and they still have to meet the demands of the industry.
There is a strong resentment among the Pasha community, the traditional toddy sellers. What will you do for them as they have no other means of employment?
Toddy can be converted to seven types of useful products like neera (palm extract) and others. Our team is studying this and we want to provide better means of livelihood to them. Some people protested against us, but I want to ask them if they have benefitted from selling toddy for years and years. Their condition has not improved, their children are illiterate and thus they have hand-to-mouth living. We have a plan to convert toddy into useful products so that better employment opportunities can be given to them.
How will you handle addicts? Do you have sufficient numbers of professionals and de-addiction centres to look after them?
Yes, every district has de-addiction centres to look after them. We are ready for the challenge and people who are ready to quit liquor are taken care of. We know it can be a difficult task but our government is ready for it. If someone dies after quitting alcohol, our government will give their families a compensation of Rs 4 lakh. We have devised a mechanism to find out how serious the condition of an addicted person is and he or she is treated accordingly. Doctors and counselors are there to handle them and, if required, the government will increase their numbers. But one thing is for sure that we will not tolerate if our coming generation ruin their lives.
Prohibition can lead to people buying illegal liquor and Bihar has a history of illicit liquor tragedies.
Those days are gone. If someone gets caught selling normal liquor, he can be sentenced to five to 10 years of jail and can be fined Rs 5-10 lakh. Very stringent laws are in place and the selling point of liquor may also be sealed forever. There is a provision of life imprisonment and death sentence, if it is proved that someone is selling illicit liquor.
We have a toll-free number where people can call us, if they find some mischief going on and they are attended immediately. So we are getting full support from the people of Bihar and as a result the number of accidents and crime rate have decreased drastically.
(The interview appears in June 16-30, 2016 edition of Governance Now)