In debt-ridden Vidarbha, a battle brews
Putting their weight behind this agitation are Vidarbha’s farm activists who now agree that liquor is one of the main distress-causing factors in the region.
Paromita Goswami, a social activist running Shramik Elgar, an NGO at Mul in Vidarbha’s Chandrapur district, has been fighting a low-intensity battle against liquor in Chandrapur’s villages for the past 10 years. “We work among rural women who have to bear the brunt of their husbands’ liquor addiction. Liquor has ravaged the villages socially and financially. We have known instances of school kids being addicted too. We have managed to get liquor vends shut through
women’s power. But isolated efforts are not so effective and we have increasingly felt the
need to turn this into a mass movement by women,” she says.
Goswami has been joined by leading farm activist Kishore Tiwari, whose Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti has been fighting for farmers’ rights. “People tend to go to extremities in distress and liquor takes its toll in these circumstances,” he says.
Tiwari cites a report by Yavatmal Collector Sanjay Deshmukh who says liquor consumption in the district has grown exponentially in the last five years.
According to official statistics, consumption of liquor in Yavatmal district, the most suicide-prone district in Vidarbha, has increased from over 8 lakh litres in 2005-6 to about 15 lakh litres in 2010-11. Of this, the sale of country liquor has increased from 6 lakh litres to 10 lakh litres.
Incidentally, the last five years were when the government poured in crores of rupees into Vidarbha’s agrarian belt, gave fresh loans to farmers and waived off their debts.
Two years ago, even the mention of liquor being one of the reasons for farm distress would invite huge backlash. Health activist Abhay Bang had been criticised when he said all efforts at helping farmers would be in vain if the problem of liquor addiction wasn’t solved. Bang, who has fought many battles against liquor in Gadchiroli, is a member of a committee set up recently by the state government to suggest ways to tackle the issue.
“Chandrapur district consumed 1.56 crore litres in 2010, which is next only to Mumbai in population-consumption ratio. Who is paying the price for it? Women and children. Liquor is a very potent means of exploitation in villages with inebriated and debt-ridden farmers getting alienated from their lands. Often, farm hands are paid in liquor instead of wages,” says Goswami.
At Golewadi village in Bhandara district of the region, 40-year old Meenakshi Dahiwale was choked to death by Sumitra Madavi, an illicit-liquor brewer, about two months ago when she had gone along with a women’s delegation to raid the shop.
“All the surrounding villages have enforced prohibition. A lot of young boys, too, had got hooked on to liquor. So, we had decided to force a ban. Most of brewers in our village fell in line, but Sumitra and her husband Sanjay Vaidya won’t give up,” says Golewadi Bachat Gat president Manjira Dahiwale.
The liquor lobby is fighting back. The Chandrapur District Liquor Association took out a huge rally of over 12,000 people in the city, opposing the demand for prohibition in Chandrapur. “We included all liquor shop owners, their employees, families and others who run small eateries near liquor shops. What we are saying is, don’t single out Chandrapur, ban liquor in the entire state,” says Deepak Jaiswal, NCP city unit president and leader of the rally. Himself a liquor trader, Jaiswal argues, “Chandrapur is the most industrialised district in Vidarbha. Also, there is tiger tourism here. If people in Mumbai and Pune can have liquor, why not those in Chandrapur? And where would all these people whose lives are dependent on the business go?”
Tiwari says, “Politicians have a vested interest as many of them are in the alcohol business. So, they will always support it. But I agree that the ban should be not in isolated places. I feel we can start by banning it in the six most suicide-prone, farm-crisis districts of west Vidarbha.”
Bang suggests a multi-pronged approach. “We need to run different long-term programmes simultaneously. Along with reducing the availability and production of liquor, we also need to initiate serious efforts of preventive education against its ill-effects,” he says.
NCP leader Jaiswal points out that even if liquor is banned, tribals, who traditionally brew and consume liquor at home, will continue to do so. Goswami counters this and says, “It’s a wrong perception. Tribals used to have it only during special occasions. In the changed socio-economic situation, it has affected them too.”