KHANPUR, India — For decades, this riverside hamlet of lower-caste Indians made liquor for a living by fermenting the fruit of the mahua tree, but since a strict prohibition was imposed in Bihar state in April, police have begun raiding homes, chasing away drinkers and arresting villagers.
In response, the village vowed to give up its main source of income and poured 200 gallons of freshly made hooch into the river in a public declaration of defeat.
“Now where do we go, what do we do? Our money and food will not last long,” said Jagar Rajvanshi, 60, a balding and spectacled man in a blue sarong who had been producing alcohol for years.
Alcohol is not illegal in predominantly Hindu India, but there has long been a social stigma against it in this conservative country, and state-level bans have become a popular ploy for politicians in India anxious to secure the women’s vote.
Drinking is on the increase in India, with rising middle-class affluence, a youth bulge and increased opportunities to dine out. According to a report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last year, India ranked third on a list of 40 nations in terms of rising alcohol consumption between 1992 and 2012.
At the same time, rural female voters are becoming more assertive about the depredations of alcoholic husbands, and this has become a potent election issue.
The southern state of Kerala has begun a phased ban, and neighboring Tamil Nadu is contemplating introducing such a prohibition again after a lapse of several years.
But the man who has made the issue his own is the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, who instituted the controversial ban after an election-year promise to women voters who complained about their drunken husbands.
But prohibition has brought unintended consequences — much as the United States found out almost a century ago — and now thousands are in jail, liquor smuggling has exploded and vigilantism is on the rise.
The anti-alcohol campaign has sent more than 14,000 people to jail since April in a state where the prisons were already overcrowded. More than 43,000 gallons of alcohol have been seized and thousands of shops shuttered. Those caught consuming alcohol can face 10 years in prison, and bail can take weeks.
But what has set off panic among residents are the draconian provisions in the law, including a clause whereby all adults in a family are now accountable if one member drinks. Homeowners can be arrested if a tenant is drinking, and the entire village can be fined if liquor is made there.
“We are not opposing prohibition, but we are saying it is unimplementable in the 21st century,” said Sushil Modi, opposition leader from the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar. “There is a climate of fear everywhere.”
Over the years, Kumar has carefully constructed an image as a politician who listens keenly to women voters. His government provided free bicycles to young girls to encourage them to attend school. He set aside government job quotas for women and promoted village self-help groups.
His proposal for an alcohol ban came against a backdrop of the real suffering by some wives at the hands of their husbands.
“My husband spent all the wages on alcohol. If I said something, he would throw things around in anger and hit me. He would say, ‘Who are you to question me?’ ” Sumedhi Kumar, 35, recalled.
So after he came to power for his third term — when he trounced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party in the state — Kumar announced a total prohibition. He did so with the full support of local women’s groups, who have since formed squads to enforce the ban, reminiscent of Carry Nation’s temperance movement before the period of prohibition in the United States.
“We now beat up men who dare to drink, with sticks and brooms. Women have become the liquor police,” said Sunaina Prasad, 45, in Simrauka village.
In an ambitious push for national recognition, Kumar is now touring other Indian states and urging them to ban liquor, as well. One TV channel has dubbed him a national prohibition evangelist.
Ironically, it was Kumar who once opened thousands of liquor stores in Bihar to sell government-produced alcohol. In the past decade, the state’s annual revenue from liquor increased tenfold — to more than $550 million a year.
A few years ago, Bihar, which has a population of nearly 100 million, also was hailed as the country’s emerging brewery hub. Local and foreign companies set up plants because of the availability of cheap labor, wheat and barley, and the state wooed investors with incentives.
The Danish beer company Carlsberg set up a gleaming green-and-gray factory in Bihar in 2012. But since April, it has stopped production. More than 600 laborers are now out of work.
“Liquor was the social glue of parties, friendships, celebrations and conversations,” said Sanjeev Singh, who was forced to close three of his restaurants in Bihar’s capital of Patna after business dropped.
Hotel bookings for corporate conferences and resorts also are down, and the rich are moving their wedding parties out of state.
Meanwhile, bootleggers are selling liquor at three times the cost. Officials have seized liquor bottles crossing into Bihar in trucks filled with cattle feed, sacks of salt and bicycle parts. Police have found liquor hidden inside school bags, vegetable baskets, cooking-gas cylinders and even ambulances.
The state’s police department also is stretched. There are 54 police officers per 100,000 people in Bihar, the lowest such ratio in India, and there are not enough patrol vehicles and checkpoints. Toll-free telephone numbers are still flooded with tipoffs, however.
“We have to create spies and informers among the communities — only then will prohibition be successful,” said Manu Maharaj, a senior police officer.
In a recent incident of liquor vigilantism, villagers stripped a man, tied him to a tree and beat him because he was carrying a few bottles. Police surrounded and searched the home of the chief of Patna’s postal service earlier this month because of a tipoff; they found nothing, enraging many residents.
“Bihar is not a liquor-obsessed state. The problem was not so big here that you created this monster to deal with it,” said Shaibal Gupta, a political economist.
In Simrauka, bus conductor Praveen Kumar — who once made his wife Sumedhi’s life miserable — said he still craves a drink but is afraid. “The law is too strict. I don’t know who is watching, who will inform the police,” he said.