NALANDA: Along the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana road that cuts through Islampur block in Nalanda district of Bihar, motorists stop at Kailashpur village to ask for ‘directions’. The villagers know what’s coming.
Invariably, the second question, often said as an afterthought is, “Yahan desi milta hai kya?”. Desi is code for country-brewed liquor in Bihar, as opposed to videsi, which is Indian-made Foreign Liquor.
Today a group of young men are busy erecting a tent for a puja by the road and the question is met with cold indifference. “Aap ko chahiye kya,” (do you want some?) asks one of them.
The group smirks when another young man delivers the disappointment: “Sab bandh hai sir, yahan kahin nahi milegi.” (It’s all closed. You won’t get it anymore here.) Kailashpur is taking a break from desi. It’s a village famous/notorious for bootleg booze. Almost everyone you meet in Patna has a tale to tell about Kailashpur’s underground industry, a reputation that goes back decades.
But now there’s prohibition, and it’s early days, and reports are that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is personally monitoring the enforcement. Twenty-five days ago the booze cops raided Kailashpuri, seized earthen vats and distillate and made some arrests. And as is the vogue under the new prohibition law, they fined the entire village. Each family was slapped with a penalty of `5,000. Everybody pays.
The fine is not what bothers the residents of Kailashpuri. It’s the need to find an alternative livelihood. Nitish Kumar’s state is in abstinence fever, and Kailashpur’s reputation makes it the address of choice for the crackdown cops. Moreover, the administration has incentivised civilians to keep a check on prohibition.
The administration has incentivised civilians, and appointed ex-servicemen as special police officers (SPOs) to assist the 550 staffers of Prohibition and Excise Department in keeping a check on liquor.
One of the young men in the group that I stopped to ask for ‘directions’ is named Jitendra.
Like all families in this village of 60 households, his too was in the desi (country-brewed liquor) business. But he chooses not to go into details but desi has been given up, really. “That’s all past now. I don’t deny we were in it. But we stopped. We did it for generations. Now we don’t know what to do,” says the youth from Kailashpuri.
And then the conversation passes to the question of what if not desi. Isn’t finding alternatives the government's duty too? Bhooru, Jitendra's buddy, joins in. “Does the government's responsibility end by raiding and penalizing us? What will we do now? We have no employment. Forget Rs 5,000, we cannot pay Rs 500.”
The question hangs in the air of Kailashpur. Why after decades of peddling desi to passing motorists does the village remain poor? Jitendra says there are educated youngsters in the village. What will they do now? “We have a lot of people who passed SSC, and some have done BA and MA.”
Kailashpuri is not alone in the desi trade, of course. Over the past three weeks, 16 villages, all desi-notorious, across Bihar were hit with the everybody-pays law.
It’s been just five months since Nitish Kumar launched the dry law, and the death of 20 people from drinking a poison brew in Gopalgunj earlier this month became grist for the mill of prohibition. Team Nitish put 24 cops into suspension and the entire administration has been clicking its heels to the no-booze command.
Om Prakash Mandal, an assistant commissioner in the Prohibition and Excise Department, says there’s a design to it. “We wanted to teach the villagers of Kailashpuri a lesson. Despite repeated warnings, they were making desi. Finally, we decided to penalise the entire village to send across a stern warning.”
Wait a minute. The fines have not been collected from the families of Kailashpur. They will be, if they don’t behave. Being a die-hard desi village, Kailashpuri has been raided for years but the vats were back in the earth soon. Mandal says this time it’s serious.
“Now, we are keeping the entire village under observation for one month. We will take a call on whether to collect the fine (of Rs 5,000) after this one-month period.”
The crackdown on Kailshpur has sent ripples of anxiety into the neighbourhood in Islampur block.
A special police officer this reporter spoke to, Surendra, said that the police were worried that the youngsters weaned off the desi trade may now turn to other forms of crime because they have nothing else to do currently.
Dry law cop Mandal says the government is looking into the rehabilitation aspect on a priority basis. “A couple of district collectors have written to the government to rehabilitate families that were traditionally involved in manufacturing desi liquor. We are looking at various options.”
With Bihar in a prohibition fever, it is wise for Kaliashpur to keep its head low. Therefore, requests for directions are not welcome, and any further conversation after that. Any probing into what lies in the ground beneath is met with a hostile response.
“That is all past. Tell us whether you or the government can do something for us. The media comes here, writes stories and goes back, but the government does nothing.”