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Women-led movements show the way to curb liquor consumption

Determined resistance to the spread of alcohol consumption is marked by both successes and failings. Bharat Dogra gives some examples, all involving enthusiastic participation of women, particularly from economically weak sections. There is a clear need for a sustained effort to reduce alcohol consumption, he says

The rapid rise in liquor consumption is a matter of increasing concern. The WHO Status Report on Alcohol points out that while per capita consumption of alcohol at present is highest in the US and European countries, the trend of increasing world consumption is mainly because of China and India, driven by active marketing by the alcohol industry. Hence, a well-organised, continuing campaign to reduce alcohol consumption and create awareness of its adverse social and health impacts is needed. This would be in keeping with the Directive Principles of State Policy, an important part of the Constitution of India.

In this context, it is heartening to note that several social movements in India have achieved significant success in reducing alcohol consumption in their limited areas of action for significant durations. Women played a leading role in these movements, showing the way forward.

As a journalist, I reported extensively on some of these movements and contributed to spreading their message. In the process, I established close ties with several organisers and mobilisers, which gave me a better idea of their perspectives; and follow-up visits helped me grasp the difficulties in sustaining the success. Here are brief descriptions of these efforts, all involving enthusiastic participation of women, particularly from economically weak sections.

The first such effort that I saw from close quarters was in the late 1970s, in the labour township of Dalli Rajhara in Chhattisgarh. A movement led by legendary labour leader Shankar Guha Niyogi had succeeded, despite hostile conditions, in increasing the income of iron ore miners. But a few weeks later, women complained bitterly to Niyogi that many men were squandering the wage gains on liquor, and the resulting problems had made their life worse than before. A distressed Niyogi decided to launch a campaign against consumption of alcohol among workers.

Niyogi announced an indefinite fast till the workers committed to giving up liquor. His speech made a deep emotional impact on the workers and as his health started deteriorating, groups of workers came to him, telling him they had renounced alcohol. Women continued to play a very important role in mobilising the men and inspiring them to shun liquor, even shaming those who persisted with their drinking habits.

Niyogi allowed the strong feelings against liquor to strengthen and spread, and then called on all workers to unitedly take a pledge that they would not consume liquor in future. Only after they did so did he break his fast. The workers kept their promise to a remarkable extent, as was testified to in several independent reports. Visiting the area after several months, the impression I gathered was that at least 90 per cent of the nearly 10000 members of the union honored their pledge. However, within a few years,retrenchments and laying off of workers lessened the hold of the union, and the success of the anti-alcohol movement also declined.

On the positive side, as the larger union, called the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, spread and formed new branches, there were significant efforts to reduce liquor consumption in other areas too. It formed an important plank of a successful effort to rehabilitate bonded workers and introduce social reforms.

Another campaign in which women played an even more crucial role was centered in Pather Village in Saharanpur District of Uttar Pradesh. The background to the campaign was the resentment that had been building up in villages, particularly among women, over the opening of more and more liquor vends by provincial governments even in remote areas, with the aim of earning more revenue and adding to the kitty of liquor contractors (who often share the bounty with corrupt politicians and officials).

The availability of liquor close to home has increased greatly in several rural areas over recent decades. This has led to increased consumption of alcohol, bringing with it attendant problems, including violence against women. The daily spending on liquor by villagers who are either already poor or on the verge of falling into that category has a detrimental effect on what should be priorities – nutrition and education of children.

When women raised objections, often, the only outcome was that they laid themselves even more open to domestic violence. In addition, the liquor vends often became centers where goons gathered and cases of molestation of women also increased. Concerned people, specially village women, had been petitioning governments not to permit vends, or to remove those that had been established, but the authorities,swayed by the prospects of increased revenue and influenced by the liquor lobbies, most often turned a deaf ear.

On occasion, villagers led by women opted for a confrontationist path to oppose liquor vends, and succeeded in some cases. Pather was one such village – the anti-liquor struggle here took a more determined form and went on for longer than usual, giving it wider impact. The more prolonged and determined struggle was made possible by the women’s empowerment programme run by Disha, a voluntary organisation, which held fast to its agenda despite several threats, and supported the struggle even in difficult circumstances.

The women, mostly from humble backgrounds, started a sit-in protest (dharna) hoping for a positive response from the administration within a few days. But the days dragged into weeks and the weeks into months. The administration appeared to be siding with the liquor contractor, a very powerful local man. Hence, the women had to take the tough decision of leaving the relative safety of the village and organising a bigger though entirely peaceful protest at the district headquarters town. As they marched peacefully, raising slogans and singing songs of solidarity, the police beat them mercilessly. Some badly injured women had to be hospitalised. However, the determined women continued their struggle.

Finally, the news of the protest reached the provincial governor who reportedly intervened personally, forcing theadministration to withdraw the liquor vend. Suddenly, songs and laughter erupted at the protest site after the sadness of many days. A sweet-seller announced that he would distribute his wares free that day to celebrate closure of the liquor vend. Women hugged each other tightly, tears of joy flowing down their cheeks.

This success inspired several nearby villagers to take up anti-liquor campaigns and these succeeded too. However, on a follow-up visit several years later, I learnt that as the women who were in the forefront of the movement went back to their routine tasks, agents of liquor contractors re-emerged and started selling liquor without official permission in smaller lots, negating some of the initial gains. On the other hand, the learnings at Pather were carried to other places, such as Topri Village.

The third such struggle related not to one village but to a number of villages in Haryana in the Delhi area too. Women played an active role, particularly in the prolonged struggles in Bhor Saidan Village in Kurukshretra District and Nahri Village in Sonipat District. What stood out for me on visits to these villages was the great enthusiasm of these women, ranging in age from schoolgirls to grandmothers and even a few great grandmothers, who were deeply committed to driving out the liquor vends from their villages.

Apart from these movements which I personally covered, I have also kept track of similar efforts in the Telugu-speaking states, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Nagaland and other parts of India. Here, too, published reports indicated a leading role of women and notable local successes. But what is common to these movements is the stagnation that sets in after the wave of protest peaked, leading to the illegal sale of liquor. Hence, there is a clear need for a more sustained effort. Permanent committees against alcohol should be constituted so that some continuity of effort is maintained. The committees should also take steps to reduce tobacco consumption and other substance abuse.

Some state governments, notably in Bihar and Gujarat, have broken the general trend and introduced prohibition, but though this has led to some gains, the efforts have been marred by corruption and other problems. Nevertheless, there are enough indications from women-led anti-alcohol movements that there is tremendous scope for building on the strong feelings of women on this issue to create a strong, sustained movement which will lead to sustained decrease of liquor consumption over a wider area, resulting in significant reduction in alcohol consumption at the national level.

April – June 2022