For Bihar’s women, benefits of prohibition wane as alcoholism persists in their villages

In Bihar, a movement against alcoholism and domestic violence, spearheaded by the women of its villages, gave impetus to a state-wide prohibition on alcohol in 2016. MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images
20 March, 2019

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.

The residents of Karwandia live in acute poverty, working as manual labourers and earning a meagre income from hammering rocks into granular pieces to sell. The women of the village, several of whom lost their husbands to the alcoholism that prevailed in a majority of the households, felt compelled to join the fight against it. “I spent my whole life—25 years—suffering through the alcoholism of my husband, and then was labelled a widow because of it,” said Sumitra Devi, a resident of Karwandia whose husband died from an illness related to alcohol consumption. Soon after the Konar protests, the women of Karwandia began a similar protest in their village. “I hope that the women from the younger generation do not have to suffer the ill-effects of alcoholism,” Sumitra said. “Their husbands should learn from the state-inflicted ban on alcohol and start taking responsibility for their wives and children instead of wasting their lives on an addiction.”

Many women in Karwandia said that the protests conveyed their message of zero tolerance for alcoholism and domestic violence, and the subsequent years saw peace prevail in their households with a steady flow of income. Across all the villages in Bihar that I visited, the women residents appreciated that the unabashed alcoholism and domestic violence that used to prevail in the village was no longer as brazen. In Konar, several women noted that many more children were now going to school because the financial capacities of their households had improved after their fathers gave up drinking. In the slum localities of Lohanipur, Yarpur, Adalatgunj and Bahadurpur, in Patna, most women said that fights used to be a daily affair in their communities, and had become almost non-existent after nearly three years of prohibition. They also noted that men had begun participating in the households. Duk­­­­hiya Devi, a 38-year-old resident of the Yarpur slum in Patna, said her husband had “improved.” She added, “A lot of money that used to get wasted in his habit is now coming home. There is money to buy grocery, spend on children’s education now.”

A study conducted by the Asian Development Research Institute, or ADRI—a Patna-based think tank that conducts social-science research—found that the liquor ban has had a significant impact on the household economy. The study, led by the economic researcher PP Ghosh, found a substantial increase in the purchase of milk products and various other items such as expensive saris, processed food, furniture, and vehicles, in the first six months after prohibition, compared to the previous year. According to the study, the purchase of honey and cheese increased by 380 percent and 200 percent, respectively, within six months after prohibition was enforced in April 2016. “The men are scared to drink openly or to hit their wives,” Lakshmi Devi, a 50-year-old resident of a Kamla Nehru Nagar, a slum near Adalatgunj, told me.

The residents of Saguni, a village in Bihar’s Parsa block, heaped praises on the prohibition law. The Saguni panchayat exercises jurisdiction over 13 contiguous villages, and nine of the elected officials in the panchayat are women. “Police crackdown has created fear in Sreerampur village,” Sunita Devi, one of the officials in the Saguni panchayat, told me. “I can see a considerable decrease in the sale of alcohol in my village.” Several women of Sreerampur said that a safer atmosphere now prevailed in the village, in stark contrast to earlier days when drunken men routinely harassed young women on the streets. “I am impressed with the peaceful surroundings which have come to exist here post prohibition,” Chunni Devi, a 28-year-old resident of the village, said. “The move was much awaited and though delayed it has strengthened my faith in the government.”

Saguni’s residents also noted that domestic violence spurred by the influence of alcohol had reduced greatly. “A few men consume alcohol on occasions here for merrymaking, but after the prohibition law came, the village doesn’t suffer from the ill effects of alcoholism,” Sonari Devi, another official of the Saguni panchayat, said. Though the women from Saguni noted that alcohol was still manufactured in the village, Sonari, too, said that drunken men no longer roamed freely on the streets.

“We had led a strong fight against alcoholism,” Meera Devi, a 55-year-old resident of Sitabigha village who was among the women leading the protest, told me. “Though so many women here lost their husbands to alcohol, the fact that you being an outsider can talk to us freely, without any worry about a drunken man misbehaving with you, is a change.”

Women I met in Chulhai Chak, a slum area in Patna, also said that they hardly witnessed brawls or episodes of public nuisance on the streets anymore. “Excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse has indeed left our society and peace prevails here,” Urmila Devi, a 55-year-old resident, said. “But bootlegging is still a common practice in our neighbourhood.”

Others echoed this observation. “There are these youths who manufacture country-made liquor out of mahua and sell them at some corner in the market area of Chandni Chowk, located outside the village,” Lalsa said, the Karwandia resident said. Other residents of Karwandia noted that in addition to the illegal sale of liquor at Chandni Chowk, several alcoholics in the village had also found individuals who were willing to deliver alcohol to their homes.

“Our fight against alcoholism must have curbed the instances of eve-teasing and hooliganism in the villages but women still have stories of suppression to recount,” Lalsa said. “My husband has started staying drunk; it is only that the liquor he buys is now available in limits and more expensive than before. Violence has returned to my house but it is not as common in all households as before.”

In Sitabigha, too, prohibition had led to an increasing number of people turning to bootlegging. “The biggest failure I see ... is that lack of alternative occupation and temptation to earn quick commission from illegal sale of liquor has compelled the poverty stricken youths and women, who were the protesters then, to indulge in bootlegging today,” Meera added. “We cannot stop this from happening as even though the state has failed in spreading awareness, the police are corrupt.” As she spoke, a group of women in the vicinity nodded along.

Nibha Devi, another resident of Sitabigha, who is among the women whose husbands had died due to illnesses resulting from alcoholism, rubbished the law. “What did I get even from protesting back then?” Nibha said, when she heard villagers refer to the liquor ban as a welcome change. “Has the society changed? Has even the sale of liquor completely stopped in Bihar? I don’t even care if it has reduced.” Nibha said that her brother-in-law, too, died as a result of his addiction to alcohol, and her sister died as she was left with no earnings or means of survival. “Will the government or any of you do something to help me run my family?”

According to Urmila, the Musahar community—a Dalit sub-caste that is one of the lowest castes in the traditional hierarchy, and the members of which are identified as Mahadalits in Bihar—was largely still engaged in producing illicit liquor. “They still manufacture country-made liquor and openly sell them at double the rate.” Before prohibition, country liquor in the state was predominantly made by members of the Mahadalit community, leaving a vast number of them jobless after the imposition of the ban.

“If the government banned liquor to improve women’s situation, it should have also thought about providing alternative employment to the likes of us for whom manufacturing alcohol translated into our livelihood,” a 22-year-old resident of the Mahadalit neighbourhood of Musahri, in Chulhai Chak, told me. She requested not to be identified. The 22-year-old said her family had been brewing alcohol for a living for the past ten years. “My brother is a raj mistri”—head mason—“but the money he gets home is not enough to feed our family of eight members,” she added. “We women at least used to sell some liquor made out of mahua sitting at home and contributed to family income. Now, our economic situation is getting worse.” I asked her whether the community still indulges in the sale and manufacture of liquor, but she did not respond.

Soon after the liquor ban was introduced, it came under heavy criticism for draconian provisions, such as the five-year imprisonment for first-time offenders and arrest of all their family members. The prohibition policy also came under fire for effectively targeting marginalised communities, such as the Mahadalits of Bihar, in its implementation. In May 2018, an Indian Express investigation revealed that over 67 percent of a total of 1,22,392 people arrested under the prohibition law came from the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Class communities. The report revealed that Scheduled Caste inmates comprised 27 percent of the arrests under the law, but only 16 percent of the state’s population. In the wake of these criticisms, in July 2018, the government introduced amendments to the act that watered down some of its harsher provisions.

“What the government should be clear about is that only bringing a stringent law to curb liquor is not the answer,” Satish Kumar, a Patna-based social activist, told me. In 2004, Kumar and Parth Sarkar, another activist based in Patna, founded the Communist Center of India, an organisation inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology that is functional across the state, and which was involved in the movement against alcoholism in rural Bihar. “Making women aware of how to oppose its return to their households through illegal means and how to exercise their rights when they face domestic violence is also a must to uplift the society,” Sarkar said. “This would be done if the incumbent government indeed came up with alcohol ban to bring an end to the scenario of women’s oppression under alcohol effect, and not only to carve in a constituency of women for political gains.”

In Bishanpura, one of the villages under the Saguni panchayat, 40-year-old Jyoti Devi shuddered when she heard the women discuss alcoholism and prohibition. Her husband Umesh Bhagat, she recounted, is a history-sheeter who was arrested after he shot a man in a drunken state not long after prohibition came into effect. “It is tormenting for me to narrate the extent of violence and verbal abuse my children and I have suffered from that demon,” Jyoti said. “He rarely returned home sober and sometimes disappeared for days. This time he even tried to kill a man in his drunkenness. I wish he stays in jail for life. I fear he will try to kill me also if he returns home.”

In Saguni, too, neither alcohol nor alcoholism has been completely eradicated from the village. Poonam Singh, a resident of Bishanpura whose husband works in Punjab, told me, “Whenever he is home, he manages to shell out some money to drink.” She added, “Prohibition has only made alcohol more expensive for him but hasn’t stopped him from drinking. Had it been just a luxury, it wouldn’t have hurt much. But his habit of alcohol has adversely affected our economic condition.”

When I asked Bijendra Yadav, the minister of liquor prohibition and excise in Bihar, about alcohol sale and consumption making its way back into the state, he said that the implementation was an ongoing process. “Apart from the constant police checks, arrests under prohibition law, the entire society will have to make efforts to spread awareness against alcoholism,” Yadav said. “To combat cases of sales getting organised in certain areas, we have started ensuring that the names with contact numbers of senior police officials like inspector general, superintendent of police is engraved on transformers and poles across villages, which would serve as helpline numbers for village residents whenever they find illegal sales of liquor happening in their area. All districts have a prohibition officer to look into the issue.”

Through my visits to the villages, however, I did not spot any such helpline numbers, and the villagers did not know of the numbers or the prohibition officers either. According to a police officer from Patna, who requested not to be identified, the initiative of putting up names of senior police officials in villages has not yet been implemented. He further questioned the value of setting up the posts of prohibition officers in the state. “If the prohibition officers were doing their work so efficiently, illegal sales of alcohol would not have started to become organised at such rapid scale within two years after it was enforced.”

Satya Narayan Madan, a Patna-based political analyst, told me that no new officers have been appointed to implement the prohibition law. “The top officials concerned with the excise and prohibition department are the same ones posted at the same ranks even after prohibition law coming in place,” he told me. “On the basis of my association with political circles throughout the last three decades, I can assert that excise-department officials accumulated riches by taking hefty commissions to facilitate smugglers before prohibition and they continue to do the same.”

Bindu Devi, the sarpanch of Saguni, said the solution lay in decentralising the implementation of the law. “Instead of completely entrusting the police to exercise powers under the prohibition law, government can assign mukhiyas and sarpanchs to check those found to be illegally manufacturing liquor with fines and warning,” she said.

It remains to be seen whether Bihar’s villages will be successful in completely eradicating the menace of alcoholism from their lives. “Government has taken this step after so long,” Lakshmi, the Kamla Nagar resident said. “If Nitish Kumar could be instrumental in stopping the gradual increase in alcohol sale after it had completely stopped for months, I will hold my faith in his governance.” She held out hope that the state government could bring about a complete and effective ban in the state. “Let’s see whether he succeeds in freeing us from the slavery imposed on us by the alcoholics for a long time.”

This is the first piece of a two-part series on the impact of women-empowerment laws in Bihar. Read part two, on the impact of reservation for women in the state’s Panchayati Raj institution, here.