“Humari aabroo ki keemat pe sharab ka dhandha nahi chalega”—The sale of liquor will not continue at the cost of our honour. The chant echoed through Konar, a village near Sasaram town of Bihar’s Rohtas district, on 2 March 2013. That day, around sixty women took to the streets to protest the alcoholism rampant among the men of the village, and the consequent domestic violence prevailing in their homes. The protestors locked the village’s wine shops, destroyed liquor bottles worth over Rs one lakh and beat up the men who tried to attack them.
The movement, which Konar’s women spearheaded, was triggered when some women discovered that their young children had been drinking out of pouches of liquor strewn about. “The women of Konar, who were frequently thrashed and abused by their husbands, had accepted the debauchery as their fate,” Sunita, a Sasaram-based activist who led the protest against alcoholism in the village, said. Sunita is the founder of the Pragatisheel Mahila Manch, an organisation working on issues of women’s safety, which was formed in the aftermath of the gang rape of a young woman in a Delhi bus in December 2012. According to her, the women of Konar believed that “their children would grow up to fight such violence and somewhat hold a future of hope against the hell they were enduring.” But when they saw their children drink, they felt that their worst fears were beginning to come true. “They had lost their family’s breadwinners to alcohol,” Sunita said. “They were not ready to lose their kids also. That was when they took to the streets and do not tolerate domestic violence ever since.”
From Konar, the women’s protests spread to other villages in and around Sasaram—including Karwandia, Sitabigha, Belwa and Basa—and other parts of Bihar. The movement, spearheaded by the women of these villages gave impetus to a state-wide prohibition on alcohol. In July 2015, while campaigning for the upcoming state elections later that year, the incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar told women attendees at the event that he would impose a liquor ban if brought to power. In keeping with his promise, the state government introduced a complete ban on the manufacture, sale, transport and consumption of alcohol by enacting the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act and the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, in April and October 2016, respectively.
Following the prohibition law, Nitish Kumar also introduced a reservation quota for women in state-government jobs and a scheme to give free bicycles to schoolgirls. The measures were widely perceived as landmark moves to bring gender equality to rural Bihar. In December 2018, I travelled across three districts in Bihar—Rohtas, Patna and Saran—to study the impact of prohibition in the state. While there was a consensus among the women I spoke to that alcoholism and domestic violence had reduced significantly after prohibition was implemented, most also rued their return. Bootlegging and illegal consumption continues, many women told me, and incidents of violence were once again on the rise. “Bihar mein daaru aur maar-pitai kabhiyo na khatm ho sakat”—Alcoholism and domestic violence will continue in Bihar no matter what you do—Lalsa Devi, a resident of Karwandia, said with a poignant smile.
According to local activists and residents, between 2014 and 2015, Karwandia and Sitabigha witnessed dozens of deaths after people fell ill from excess consumption of alcohol. During this period, a network of licensed liquor shops spread across Bihar—ostensibly the result of an earlier decision by Nitish Kumar, during his first term as the chief minister of Bihar, in 2005, to liberalise liquor trade in the state as a means to increase revenue. Indeed, over the next ten years, revenues from liquor sales jumped eight-fold, from Rs 500 crore to Rs 4,000 crore. The social costs and consequences of the policy were calamitous.