Prohibition of consumption of liquor and alcoholism are one of the several issues that the women’s movement in the country has been focusing on. Women in Karnataka are now demanding a full prohibition of liquor in the state. On January 19, more than two thousand women began a padayatra (march) at Chitradurga demanding a complete ban on sale of liquor in Karnataka.
Writing about the anti-liquor movement in Andhra Pradesh in 1992, Kancha Illaiah wrote, “For the women, liquor represents economic and health problems. One after the other the women talk of how the families' economy was being ruined with liquor—they point to a man sitting around them and say "this man was drinking Rs. 40 worth liquor a day. He sold an acre of land, all his wife's ornaments and all the grain procured for food". Another woman says that she became a widow at the age of 30 because of liquor. Another woman points to a boy of 12 and says his father taught him drinking. Not that the diehard drunkards do not come to public gatherings with their pet theory that 'with drinking I could forget the day's labour and the body aches'. They do. But the women retort, "They drink by propping up this body aches theory and beat us so that our bodies keep on aching day in and day out".”
Asking the same set of question more than one and a half decade later, the protesters in Karnataka from across the state and across the age bracket marched together for twelve days and reached Bengaluru, to occupy the Vidhana Soudha (the assembly) on January 27. Speaking with NewsClick, Swarna from Grameena Kooli Karmikara Sanghatane (Daily Wage Labour Union) and Karnataka Madyapana Nishedha Andolana (KMNA) (Karnataka Liquor Ban Movement), observed that the movement which started in 2016 has gotten stronger even as the government has continued to ignore them.
The Movement in 2016
Under the banner of KMNA, on October 2, 2016, thousands of women had gathered in the northern district of Raichur.
Led by a social activist Abhay Kumar, lakhs of women were on 24 hours Satyagraha for 71 days in Raichur and other 17 districts, with the same demand of complete abolition. An ADR report noted, “Everyday around 200 women from around 4-5 villages participate in the Satyagarha. There are also discussions on social and political issues along with understanding of labour unions, farmer’s co-operatives, people’s bank and women federating themselves. Every day evening apart from 5 from each village, all others go back. The 5 women sit down and make a list of how to pressurise the political parties when they come to their village (not to get lured by money or liquor) and also make a list of village problems, which the Sangathan has to take up in future. They also plan how if the government does not ban liquor they need to take other actions in their respective villages to stop this menace.”
The Satyagraha that began on February 20, 2018, concluded on May 1, 2018, just before the state legislative assembly elections. Swarna noted that this was a strategy to pull the attention of the major political parties towards their demands. Noting that none of the political parties were ready pay to them any heed, enraged Swarna observed, “For all these political parties that speak so much about women’s rights and have symbols like woman carrying hay stack [JD(S)] and talk of Bharat Mata (BJP), we protesting women were invisible. Siddaramaiah of the Congress had said, it is not possible to ban.”
She also said that the current Chief Minister of the coalition government, H D Kumaraswamy had before the election promised a full prohibition of liquor in the state if he came to power. However, during the recent padayatra, when he was questioned about his promise, Swarna noted that he asked back, “Did you all vote for me and help my party to form it’s government on it’s own? No! This is a coalition government and I cannot do anything for you.”
Swarna asks, “Is this the language that is expected from a Chief Minister in a Democracy? Are we not his subjects if his party did not win the elections?” The andolan had also made a people’s manifesto which includes issues like wages, social security, health and education rights, scientific price for farmers produce, support to handmade products, land and housing rights, 50% political reservation to women, implementation of the recommendations of Nirbhaya committee report, land to landless and housing land for all, and so on.
Despite the obstacles laid down by the state and various political parties, the women of the state are striving to make the movement stronger. Swarna said, “As the CM thinks banning liquor would extinguish the exchequers of the state, we continue our protest and are planning to give a call to abstain from voting in the Lok Sabha elections. We want the central government also to hear us out. If nothing is going to work, we will occupy government offices and continue to create pressure on the government.”
According to a report in the Livemint, this year the state has a revenue target of around Rs. 19,750 crore, including licence fees from the liquor in the current fiscal year, up from around Rs. 18,000 crore in the previous year. The CM speaking to the KMNA representatives has noted that this revenue target is to meet the demands of the farmers and tackle agrarian distress and development activities in the state. Swarna questioned, “Why should we women pay the cost for everything? Doesn’t government realise that the consumption of alcohol also increases its expenditure on the health?”. She further observed that the government ironically spends a fixed amount of money on programs creating awareness about consuming intoxicants and even while letting the intoxicants be produced, sold and consumed.
Anti-Liquor Movement across India
The demand for a complete prohibition of alcohol in the state of Karnataka is not an unique one in the country. Several states including the neighboring states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Mizoram and Manipur have seen such protests in the past. Mentioning the anti-liquor movement in Andhra Pradesh in 1990’s, Kancha Illaiah wrote, “Rural women in Andhra are making history. Illiterate women, whose minds and bodies appeared to have been crippled under the heavy weight of hard labour, landlord and market exploitation, social and domestic oppression, and who have been 'public goddesses' and 'private sex objects', have now suddenly revolted against their husbands, the mandal officer, the police sub-inspector, the collector and superintendent of police and the home minister and chief minister. Their demands are simple—no drinking or selling liquor.”
The movement in AP started in Nellore where women in an unprecedented way, stepped out of their homes and got onto the street and, as Illaiah writes attacked all those who were responsible for the liquor availability in the district. The movement mainly aimed at stopping the auctioning of the liquor shops.
Similarly, writing about an anti liquor movement spearheaded by women in Uttar Pradesh, Bharat Dogra said, “Pather village of Saharanpur district has emerged as a major symbol of the anti-liquor movement in western Uttar Pradesh. For nearly three months, the people of this village, assisted by a voluntary organisation Disha, carried out a grim struggle for the removal of the liquor vend from the village...The liquor vend at Pather had at one time become the number one problem of the people of this village.”
As Dogra writes, even in Pather the women fearlessly stood up against domestic abuse and the economic stress that the consumption of liquor had caused them.
These movements even though focusing on anti-alcoholism, have been fighting other issues as well. One such example is the Meira Paibi, which was started by Meitei women in the late 1970s against alcoholism and drug abuse. Presently, the Meira Paibi also focuses on the protection of human rights in their community and fight against the injustices of AFSPA (Armed Force Special Protection Act).
Swarna acknowledging all of these movements noted that the governments which actually care for women’s rights will take prohibition of liquor seriously. Rubbishing the claims that prohibition would give rise to illicit market, she said, it is the duty of the government to design a policy and implement it.
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