Shame puts the cork back in liquor bottles

  • 29/06/1993

Shame puts the cork back in liquor bottles IN MANIPUR, drinking is more than being merely dangerous to one's health. It can be utterly embarrassing because a man caught drinking there is likely to be stripped, have his face blackened, be paraded seated on a donkey and then handed over to the police for prosecution.

Nupi Lan, the women's association in Manipur, maintains an all-night vigil to prevent men succumbing to the temptation posed by the illegal rice liquor brewed as a traditional right by the Kabui Naga tribals. The patrollers are called Meira Paibis (torch-bearers) because of the kerosene torches they carry.

Manipur, which went dry in April 1991, was an instance of a people's movement resulting in prohibition. Anti-liquor campaigns have been launched in other Indian states, too, by women's organisations fed up of their menfolk's earnings being dissipated in daily bouts of drinking.

The Andhra Pradesh protests began in Dubagunta in Nellore district, a nondescript village with a population of 1,200, involved mainly in cultivating chilli and tobacco. Today, its people -- and especially, the women -- are proud of their role in introducing prohibition. "It is an achievement of the whole village -- not of any single individual," says 60-year-old V Roshamma, who led the neo-literate women of the village in their fight.

A primer inspires Their anti-liquor movement began last September, when two adult literacy programme employees in Dubagunta were abused by a couple of drunken villagers. The incident outraged the women attending the literacy classes and inspired by a story they had read in a primer (See box), they descended on the village arrack shop, armed with broomsticks, chilli powder and sticks, and forced it to shut down. Motivated by the Dubagunta example, women throughout Nellore joined the anti-liquor movement.

With arrack vends shutting down in village after village, the state government finally took heed and on April 15, chief minister K Vijayabhaskara Reddy announced an immediate ban on arrack in Nellore district and throughout the entire state beginning October 1. His order excludes Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL), whose wholesale trade is slated to be taken over by the government.

Many expect the ban on arrack will only drive consumers to IMFL. Nellore district's only wine shop for example, has already doubled sales to Rs 1,000 a day and IMFL traders throughout the state are making plans for new shops and bars.

But Nellore district collector M Sambasiva Rao maintains it will be impossible for IMFL traders to open shops in each village. The government, however, has plans to market a cheap liquor brand to cater to arrack-drinkers.

Nellore's inhabitants are also bracing for an increase in arrack smuggling and illicit brewing, especially as the excise authorities are poorly equipped. The ban is being enforced by additional excise reinforcements in Nellore, but the department is in no position to enforce the ban statewide.

Meanwhile, prohibition supporters are confident they can plug loopholes in the ban and thwart attempts to scuttle it. "We will continue our struggle till complete prohibition is imposed," declares Roshamma.

And, Mailadari, general secretary of the Jana Vignayana Vedika (JVV), a voluntary organisation, urges, "Voluntary organisations should ensure the police and the excise department do not soft-pedal the issue."

Prohibitionists are optimistic the threat of fines and social boycotts will deter their menfolk from hitting the bottle again. Some organisations have also started de-addiction programmes and more than 1,000 village workers have been trained in rehabilitation. Government assistance, however, will be necessary to ensure success.

The ban on alcohol will mean a revenue loss for Andhra Pradesh and for the arrack contractors. There are fears also that about 50,000 toddy-tappers in Nellore district alone may be without jobs. But JVV physician Vijayakumar dispels this notion, saying, "The movement was not against the tappers. It was to pressure the government to create conditions that would enable them to carry on their traditional occupation by exploiting palymra trees for other products."

One such product is neera, a highly nutritious non-alcoholic drink prepared from palm juice. Vijayakumar says neera-maaking can be a profitable venture, but entrepreneurs are discouraged because the state government considers neera an alcoholic beverage. Nevertheless, the state has sanctioned Rs 1 crore for a study on neera production and marketing.

Ironically, the anti-liquor movement has had a boomerang effect on the literacy campaign. The state government is blaming the literacy campaign for the anti-arrack movement and has ordered all anti-government references to be deleted from booklets prepared by the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Jatha (BGVJ) and the state resources centre for use in adult literacy classes.

Says V Lakshamana Reddy, convenor of the Andhra Pradesh BGVJ, "About 2.5 million adults in 14 districts are in danger of sliding back to illiteracy. They have not received post-literacy material for four months now as the state barred the Zila Saksharta Samitis (district literacy committees) from preparing the material and failed to provide it itself."

Local response
The success of the anti-liquor movement in Manipur and Andhra Pradesh has come about mainly because they were responses to local situations. But, the campaign has failed where outsiders led it or where the campaign concentrated on merely stopping liquor sales and consumption. Haryana, perhaps, is the best example of this, even though liquor consumption in the state has led to the usual lost income, wife- and child-battering and rising crime; in fact, the Tekchand commission set up by the state government in 1988 reports Haryana spends more on controlling liquor-related crime than its earnings from liquor.

Unlike in Andhra Pradesh, the Haryana agitation was not led by women and although thekas (liquor vends) in nearly 1,000 of the state's 6,745 villages were forced to close, alcoholics continued to get their liquor from villages and towns where the thekas were not affected.

Child addicts
A glaring example of the ruining effects of alcoholism is Bhondsi, a village of 2,400 households in Gurgaon district, where even children have become addicted. Says Anand Pal Raghav, a Bhondsi resident, "Forty per cent of the males between 15 and 35 and 15 per cent of the boys below 15 are alcoholics." And, a Gurgaon-based, Roman Catholic nun, Sister Cecil, says, "More than 45 children in Kankei village, aged 6 to 15, drink regularly. Although there is no theka there, liquor is available at grocery shops."

Raghav adds, "We began protesting when a 5-year-old girl was raped near the village theka in March last year by 30-year-old Avatar Singh, an alcoholic."

Their protests have taken on different forms. With retired IAS officer Vijay Kumar, Swami Agnivesh of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha and Sister Cecil in the lead, torchlight processions were held and round-the-clock dharnas staged outside liquor vends. Says, Agnivesh, "We have got the moral support of all political parties, except the ruling Congress. Nevertheless, we will take the andolan (stir) to its logical finish."

In some villages, the anti-liquor drive is spearheaded by the biradari (community) panchayat. Bhura Ram of Pawnawa village in Kaithal district, where the theka was closed on April 1, 1993, says, "My community had warned alcoholics to stay away from the theka or face a social boycott." Other communities in the village soon followed suit.

On April 22, a sarvakhap panchayat (traditional meeting of all communities) was held at Sisana village in Sonepat district and a decision was taken to impose a fine of Rs 1 lakh on village panchayats that allowed liquor vends to open.

But a more effective protest is one involving the use of ghagris (skirts), which, in Keorak village in Kaithal district, alcoholics are forced to wear by the village women. Sudesh Kumari explained, "Later, some men made garlands of discarded slippers for the tipplers." Some villagers even paraded alcoholics on donkeys, as in Manipur.

Lost gains
But such initial gains as preventing vend auctions, getting contractors to close shops and a drop in liquor sales, seem to have been lost. Hundreds of alcoholics, who had voluntarily pledged to abstain, have reverted to their old ways.

Says Suryabhan Sharma of Sarsa village, "Alcoholics are back to their habits. The village panchayat is split on the issue of fines and the Rs 30,000 collected has been returned to the offenders."

In Sarsa, the closure of the village theka has not affected liquor supply. "Some villagers have become agents of the thekedar (contractor) and even deliver alcohol to the homes of alcoholics. There has been a virtual race for making money through 'cuts' and liquor sales in the village are higher than ever," says Sarsa resident Ram Prakash.

Another factor that has weakened the anti-liquor drive in Haryana is the existence of thekas in towns and villages where panchayats stayed out of the anti-liquor stir. In fact, when a theka is closed in a particular panchayat area, new ones spring up just outside its jurisdiction. Illicit liquor is increasing and even tea-stalls sell liquor illegally. And, uniquely, in Kamoda village in Kaithal district, the panchayat has petitioned for the theka to be reopened.

The absence of an institution to sustain the anti-liquor campaign in Haryana has weakened the efforts made so far. Pandarsi village sarpanch Sadhu Ram explains, "Most people saw closing the thekas as their goal and became complacent after that. Attention should have been paid to sustaining the social and domestic pressure." Eight-year-old Chinder Singh says his father stopped drinking at the height of the agitation in March, but has since resumed drinking and beats his family when they try and stop his drinking.

In fact, the anti-liquor movement has come as a shot in the arm for the Haryana government, which is short of funds and cannot afford to give up earnings from excise on alcohol. Revenues apart, there seems to be a thin line dividing the government and the liquor lobby.

There have been many liquor agitations in the country in the past. Gujarat is a dry state and so are the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh. But in all these places, liquor is freely available. What does this say of prohibition as a permanent solution? Even in Manipur or Andhra Pradesh, the anti-liquor force could weaken over time.

A successful example
There is at least one instance when prohibitionists have been successful. In Ralegan Siddhi in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, illicit liquor breweries thrived until 1972, when Anna Hazare came on the scene and had illicit still owners tied to lamp-posts and whipped. Freeing the village from alcohol, says Hazare, "was not my goal. You cannot organise people for short-term objectives because once the objective is attained, the organisation collapses and drinking returns, perhaps with a vengeance. Instead, I decided to organise the people to respect themselves and lead a meaningful life. They set their own goals and worked out means to attain them. Naturally, alcohol was the first thing they attacked."

Nobody drinks in Ralegan Siddhi now. So, surely, what the villagers achieved there, can be a goal for others elsewhere.

---With reports from Shailendra Kumar in Haryana, Rahul Bedi in Manipur and Lakshman Rao in Andhra Pradesh.