Women Led Movements Against Liquor Consumption


anti liquor movement

Dharna at clock tower Saharanpur during anti-liquor movement of Pather in 1993

Fast increase 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 developed countries like the USA and European countries, the trend of increasing world consumption is mainly driven by increase in alcohol consumption in China and India and this in turn is driven by  active marketing by the alcohol industry. Hence a well-organised, continuing campaign to reduce alcohol consumption and its adverse social and health impacts is needed and can make a very useful social contribution.This would be in keeping with the Directive Principles of State Policy , an important part of the Constitution of India.

In this context of the growing urgency of reducing alcohol consumption significantly it is heartening to note that in recent decades several social movements in India have achieved significant success in reducing alcohol consumption in their limited areas of action for more or less significant durations of time. These movements almost inevitably had a leading role of women.This has significant lessons for the way forward in reducing alcohol consumption.

As a journalist I was involved in reporting extensively on some of these movements and contributing to spreadig their message over a wider area. In the process I came close to several organizers and mobilisers which gave me a better idea of their perspective. I also made follow-up visits after the initial wave of the movement of the passed and this helped to improve my understanding, particularly of the dfficulties of sustaining the success unless supporting additional efforts are initiated as well. Here I briefly describe three of these efforts, all involving very keen and enhusistic participation of women, particularly those from poorer and economically weaker sections.

The first such effort that I saw from close quarters was in the late 1970s in the township and labor colonies of Dalli Rajhara in Chattisgarh. Here a movement led by a legendary labor leader Shankar Guha Niyogi had succeeded, in very hostile conditions, in increasing the earnings of iron ore miners but a few weeks later  women came rushing to their dear leader and complained bitterly that the wage gains were being squandered by many male  workers on liquor, and the resulting problems made their life worse than before. Niyogi was greatly distressed and decided to launch a campaign against consumption of alcohol among workers.

Even as workers were being mobilized on this issue, Niyogi announced that he is starting an indefinite fast and will not  aceept any food as long as workers do not gather the commitment to give up liquor. His speech made a deep emotional impact on workers. As his health started deteriorating, workers started coming in groups to appeal to him to give up his fast as they had decided to give up liquor. All the time women continued to play a very important mobilizational role, inspiring men to give up liquor, shaming those who still insisted on  persisting with their drinking habits.

Niyogi allowed some time to pass so that strong feelings against liquor could strengthen and spread. Then he called upon all workers to unitedly take a pledge that they will not consume any liquor in future. Only when they did so  Niyogi started taking food again. The workers kept their pledge to a remarkable extent, as was testified in several indepenent reports. Visiting the area after a gap of several months the impression that I gathered was that at least 90 per cent of workers have honored their pledge.

The results here were quite durable among nearly ten thousand or so  workers who were union members. However after the retrenchments and laying off of workers within a few years, the hold of the union in the town reduced and with this the reach and strength of the anti-alcohol movement also gradually reduced from its peak achievement.

On the positive side, where the larger group of these unions called the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha  spread its new branches, significant reduction of liquor was sought to be achieved in several of these new areas too. In a paricularly inspiring example of very successful rehabilitation of bonded workers, for example ( in the same state of Chattisgarh), this reduction of liquor too was an important plank of the overall social reform efforts.

The second effort with even more crucial role of women was centered in a village named Pather, in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. To appreciate its larger significance, it is important to know that resentment has been gradually building up in several villages of India, particularly among women, as most provincial governments open more and more liquor vends even in remote villages with the aim of earning more revenue and bringing more profit to liquor contractors (who often share it with corrupt politicians and officials). The liquor lobby in many districts and provinces is a very powerful  force.

As a result of fast spread of liquor vends in rural areas, liquor avalability close to home has increased greatly in many rural areas in recent decades. Easy proximate availability has led to increasing consumption of alcohol with all the attendant problems including violence against women. Many villagers are poor or at the margins of being so, and daily consumption of liquor leads to very adverse impact on such obvious priorities as nutrition and education of children. This was understandably opposed by women in particular and as a result they often got more beatings from their now-addicted husband. In addition the liquor vends often became centers where goons gather and pass lewd remarks against passing women and girls. Cases of molestation also increased.

Due to the growing problems related to liquor vends, people and specially  women of several villages have been petitioning government not to permit any vend in their village, or to remove the liquor vend that already exists. More often the authorities, more under the influence of the liquor lobby and guided  more by revenue concerns, refuse to listen. In some of these cases, villagers led by women have taken a more confrontationist path to oppose liquor vends, succeeding in some cases in driving them away.

Pather was one such village where such a struggle took a more determined form, lasted a longer than normal time, and also had a wider impact. A more determined and prolonged struggle could take place here largely because of the women’s empowerment program of a voluntry organization Disha and the admirable commitment of this organization, despite several threats, to extend its support to this struggle even in very difficult circumstances.

The women, mostly from humble backgrounds, started their sit-in protest ( dharna) with the hope that they will get some positive response from the administration within a few days. But the days dragged into weeks and weeks into months, but the adminstration appeared to be siding entirely with the liquor contractor, a very powerful man at the local level. Hence the women had to take the tougher decision of  leaving the relative safety of the village and coming to the district town for organizing a bigger but entirely peaceful protest to press for the withdrawal of the liquor vend. As they marched peacefully shouting slogans and singing songs of solidarity, the police started beating them mercilessly . Several women were badly injured in the beating and admitted to hospital.

However it is a measure of the determination of these women that they still continued the struggle. Finally the news of the struggle reached the provincial Governor who is stated to have made a personal intervention and so finally the administration agreed to withdraw the liquor vend. Suddenly song and laughter erupted at the protest site after the sadness of many days. A sweet seller jumped around announcing that he will not sell any sweets today but distribute them free to celebrate the closure of the liquor vend! Women hugged each other tightly, tears of joy flowing endlessly down their cheeks.

This success inspired several other villagers in neaby  areas to take up anti-liquor efforts of their own and the success of Pather spilled over for some time to a much wider area. However when I made 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, negatig some of the initial gains. Despite this, some of the gains could still be seen in some other struggles, such as one in Topri village, in which women affiliated to the same organization were involved and had learnt their lessons first from the Pather struggle.

The third such struggle on which I reported extensively related not  to  one village but a number of villages in the province of Haryana. Since this province borders the capital city of Delhi, some of the struggles spilled over also to villages of Delhi too. The struggles in Bhor Saidan village of Kurukshretra district and Nahri village of Sonipat district were more prolonged, with very active role of women. What I remember from several visits to these villages above all is the great  enthusiasm of these women, ranging in age from school girls to grandmothers and even a few great grandmothers, who were so deeply committed to driving out the liquor vends and liquor sellers from their villages.

These movements played out in various ways in different villagers, but there was often the same stagnation after the peak wave of the movement had passed, leading after some time to illegal sale of liquor even if the main vend was removed. Hence there is a clear need for a more sustained effort. Permanent alcohol opposition committes should be constituted so that, while the same enthusiasm cannot be sustained always, but some continuity of effort is maintained. Secondly, once such committees are constituted, efforts to reduce tobacco consumption and other substance abuse should  added to their agenda.

Above I have reported about the movements which I covered personally. However I also tried to keep  track of numerous other such movements in  Andhra Pradesh, Kerala,  Tamil Nadu, Nagaland and other parts of India. In the context of these movements also the published reports indicated a leading role of women and notable local successes at the time of the movement, but here too the success could not be sustained in a way that it could spread to a much wider area.

Some state govenments more notably those of Bihar and Gujarat have broken from the general trend and introduced prohibition, but this official effort though contributing to some gains has also been marred by corruption and other problems.

Nevetheless 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 stronger sustained movement which will lead to sustained decrease of liquor consumption over a wider area, resulting in sustained significant reduction in alcohol consumption at the national level as well.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author, is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His latest books include Man Over Machine, Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril and Earth Without Borders.

Contact—[email protected],


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