Indian women impose unofficial drinking fines

In the tribal hamlets of Dahanu, around 100 km from Mumbai, in the state of Maharashtra in western India, demonstrations are often angry. But in October 2001, when 400 women, supported by many young boys and girls, demonstrated in front of the office of the local revenue officer, there was a difference — they were happy, pleased with the government's proposed ban on black jaggery, a waste residue of sugarcane molasses generally used as cattle feed.

Why the support? Because in these rural areas black jaggery is the cheapest form of sugar available for the brewing and distillation of the local country liquor — a scourge which (with other forms of alcohol) is destroying families in India.

The women's banners read: "We will no longer tolerate beating, we will no longer distil alcohol".

Says Brian Lobo, a social activist working in the area: "The fact is that the government just intended to prevent tax losses from the smuggling of black jaggery into Dahanu from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh." But the women saw the ban as a way to halt their menfolk's alcohol abuse. "For the past month there's been a major social movement for freedom from alcohol", says Lobo.

Adding to a history of women fighting against alcohol abuse, growing since the 1990s, this recent outcry was also taken up in around 100 villages of Uttaranchal, a young state in the Hima layan foothills of north India. In December, the villagers organized raids to smash illicit breweries, and even slapped an unofficial fine of Rs 500 (US$ 10) on anyone found drinking liquor. Those who refuse to pay the fine are being socially boycotted.

The individual consumption of alcohol has risen phenomenally in India over the last decade. One study in Karnataka showed that while per capita alcohol consumption rose 114% from 1988–98, the actual number of consumers only rose 14%. The average alcohol user was consuming around 20 bottles of whisky (each of 750 ml) in 1998–99, more than double the nine bottles consumed in 1988–89, says one of the authors of this study, Vivek Benegal, assistant professor of psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore.

People who drink heavily develop health problems long before they are identified as chronic alcoholics, says Benegal. On average they need to visit clinics frequently for eleven years before seeking treatment for an advanced condition of alcohol dependence at a de-addiction facility, he says.

According to Vikram Patel of the Sangath Centre in Goa "Recent community studies have reported that up to 6% of the adult population suffers from alcohol dependence ... Despite this evidence, alcohol ... remains outside the public health policy-making agenda."

Although most abusers are men, the number of women taking to drinking alcohol is also on the rise. According to Dr Shekhar Saxena, coordinator in the mental health and substance dependence department of WHO, research studies have shown that a high 95% of Indian women (and 55–60% of men) are total abstainers. However, the de-addiction centre at NIMHANS notes a fourfold increase in the number of women registering their alcohol-related problems over the last ten years, and warns that this is only the "tip of the iceberg".

According to Saxena, heavy drinkers in developing countries suffer particularly severe health effects because of poor nutritional status, the presence of other illnesses or infections, harmful impurities in (often illicitly made) liquor and frequent association of heavy drinking with multiple substance abuse, including tobacco chewing and smoking.

In 1998, the Karnataka budget imposed a 30% increase in taxes on beer — but added nothing to the taxes on spirits. But it seems Indian women are prepared to impose a kind of tax where others are not. With the events in Dahanu, Uttaranchal and elsewhere, national newspapers are claiming that "a new anti-liquor revolution" is now gathering force in India, with a virtual declaration of war against liquor, and the creation of "people's prohibition."

Rupa Chinai, Mumbai, India


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