Posted by Swathi Shukla
On 19th January 2019, chanting the slogans “Beer beda neer beku” (We don’t want beer, we want water), “Saraayi beda shikshana beku” (We don’t want liquor, we want education), around 3,000 women marched from Chitradurga, a town in the middle of Karnataka to the capital city Bangalore’s freedom park. They wanted to meet chief minister Mr. Kumaraswamy and demanded that he implement a complete ban on liquor and instead work on improving the living standards of its citizens.
The padayatra (walk) covered the town of Chitradurga, Kalur, Hiryur,Taverkere, Sira, chikkanahalli, Tumkur, Nelmangala before congregating in Malleshwaram grounds in Bangalore. The women held meetings to tell their stories and to raise awareness about the effects of alcohol abuse. The women made the long journey of 210 km on foot, some with their children, mothers and fathers-in-law managing only two meals a day, taking night shelter in community halls, temples or sometimes sleeping in open grounds. They suffered setback when one of their comrade, 60 year old Renukamma lost her life due to a motor bike accident. Even after this the chief minister didn’t come to the venue of the campaign. This caused lot of anger towards the state and furthered their determination towards the ban.
These women who work as daily wage labour are stuck in a cycle of poverty, debt, and violence, due to alcohol abuse by men. Most times, even their earnings are not spared by the men in the family.
The women gathered immense support from the townspeople. Many women who came to enquire about the padayatra praised their strength and resolve for the cause. Even in 2017, women had held a 71 days protest in Raichur demanding total prohibition on alcohol. This demand for alcohol prohibition in India is not new. Alcohol prohibition in India is in force in the states of Bihar, Gujarat, Nagaland and the union territory of Lakshwadeep.
How It Started?
The march was organised by collective called GraKooS – Grameen Coolie Karmikara Sangathane (rural daily wage labourers organisation) that also work for proper implementation of MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gaurantee Act). The collective launched the protest after some women approached them for help in reforming their drunkard husbands. The women from this organisation brought at least 20 women from each village to join the padayatra. The government has been enforcing measures to increase liquor sale and giving liquor license to bars. The problem in North Karnataka has reached critical level as it is already underdeveloped and is suffering from water scarcity.
Support From Civil Society
Movement gained support from other civil society organisations, students, and activists. Freedom fighter H.S. Doreswamy and theater person Arundhati Nag came out in support of the protesting women. Handloom weaver activist Prasaana also walked for four days with the women. For many, the march with these women was itself transformative – those who had questioned such movements, understood the actual plight of these women.
For government in Karnataka, alcohol is a cash cow that generates big revenues. In total disregard to concerns about public health and order, previous chief ministers have continued pro liquor policies to the extent that excise officials are forcing bar owners to serve excessive liquor to customers, along with selling a set quantity of liquor every month. There is also no control on the sale of alcohol to underage children and prohibiting serving liquor to an already drunk person. Mr. H.D. Kumaraswamy’s response was no different.
The protestors waited for five hours to meet the chief minister, who sent his representatives to the protest site. The women were in no mood to back down after 12 days of padayatra. A five member team of anti-liquor campaign went to meet the chief minister only to come back empty handed. Kumaraswamy refused their demands saying how would he compensate for the money for farmers loan waiver. It just reflects the state’s apathy to its own people and lack of vision to generate revenue from other sources.
Why Liquor Ban Is A Women’s Issue
With tears in their eyes, each woman had a personal story of loss due to alcohol abuse. The men who are addicted to alcohol spend their daily earnings on alcohol thus the burden to run household falls on the shoulder of the women. These women who work as daily wage labour are stuck in a cycle of poverty, debt, and violence due to alcohol abuse by men. Most times, even their earnings are not spared by the men in the family.
Previous chief ministers have continued pro liquor policies to the extent that excise officials are forcing bar owners to serve excessive liquor to customers, along with selling a set quantity of liquor every month.
Out of her 8 sons only 2 don’t drink, said Eeramma who is in her 80s. After drinking they beat her. Her helplessness at the situation reflected in her watery eyes. In one case one alcoholic husband killed his wife and son and buried them. The problem is so severe that in some villages children as young as 12 have taken up to drinking and dropped out of school. These women understand it’s not an easy task taking on the liquor industry that is openly supported by the state.
Due to government pro liquor policies now every village has licensed liquor shop selling expensive whiskey and beer. In the absence of better employment and living conditions, easy access to alcohol by the state is adding fuel to the fire. Most often, it’s the poor conditions that are pushing many men towards drinking in the first place. Women want to be saved from this cruelty and domestic violence. They believe prohibition is the only way to save the rural poor.
The women also have constitution on their side. As per article 37, “state shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health”. Many states in violation of article 37 use alcohol as major tax revenue instead of its prohibition for better public health.
The Way Forward
Despite all the talk of women’s rights and empowerment, women’s issues seem to be sidelined by the political parties. The issue of prohibition was raised several times in Karnataka but the state has so far ignored such protests. Politicians also don’t care for women as a vote bank and mostly rely and act on issues plaguing men. Women want to also address this general disregard for their gender and warned political parties that “they have had enough”. This time women have decided they will only vote for the party that includes alcohol prohibition in their manifesto. As of now, the women are disappointed that government gave them no reassurances. They want to intensify their struggle and will challenge the politicians when they will come for election campaigning. They are also planning a legal battle against the policy of issuing liquor licences against the wish of gram sabhas.
Rural And Urban Divide
In the absence of any rationing or control, alcohol has spiraled into a big menace for a society that is still divided on rural and urban lines. Such protests have also triggered a conflict of interest among urban population who do not see any harm in occasional drinking and socialising. They compare these protests to American prohibition that failed to control drinking and led to growth of alcohol mafia. This is not just a different point of view, it is self-interest. Something that might be a personal choice or a minor nuisance in an urban setting is causing havoc on many lives in rural setting.
Alcohol abuse plays in many ways. It results in widowhood, single parenthood, life of poverty and misery that affects mostly women. In its less subtle ways, for many women it is their first experience with patriarchy. In most of India, drinking is still a men’s only activity, mostly seen as male camaraderie but almost always alienating women. It separates men and women, and builds a hierarchy within the family as well. Women are also at the receiving end of sexual crimes like rape, molestation, and sexual assault that are aggravated by drunken behaviour.
Alcohol abuse is a women’s issue because it is women who bear the brunt of alcohol addiction and daily violence from the drunkard husbands, partners and sons.
Alcohol abuse is a class issue because it disproportionately affects families from lower socioeconomic background. Poor people drink to forget their miserable life and work. They are the one who end up becoming empty shelves of their previous life. Shouldn’t we as a society be working towards improving the living standard of its people, where nobody should drink out of despair but out of happiness? We should all demand that the government provide better public health, rehabilitation programs, and better living and livelihood opportunities so as people are not pushed towards alcohol abuse.
Dr. Swathi Shukla is a social activist from Bangalore. You can follow her on Facebook.
Featured Image Source: Madya Nished Andolan Kar