“Neeru” is the Kannada word for water, a scarce resource in and around the bone-dry district of Raichur in north Karnataka. As the summer grows more intense, conversations in most households are dominated by water scarcity. This year, however, the anger, especially among women, is directed at a liquid that is available in abundance: beeru or alcohol.

“Beeru beda, neeru beku.” We don’t want alcohol, we want water, shouted a group of women in a shamiana in the Mahatma Gandhi stadium complex in Raichur city, on the morning of April 2. Their agitation had entered its 42nd day. The organisers of the demonstration, the Madhya Nisheda Andolana, said that they aimed to keep protesting for 71 days.

“We have chosen 71 days because it has been 71 years since India has been declared independent but us women still lead enslaved lives,” said Renuka, a member of Mahila Okkuta, a women’s organisation. “The wretched liquor has ruined our lives – ask the women here. Many of them are regularly beaten up by their drunk husbands and sons. Rampant alcoholism has eaten up the earnings of most families. What is worse is even boys as young as 13 and 14 have begun drinking!”

Formed in 2016 to demand prohibition in Karnataka, the Madhya Nisheda Andolana is supported by 30-odd organisations across the state. Women from nearly 600 villages across Raichur district have been participating in the protest since February 20.

As the sun climbed the sky, an autorickshaw full of women wobbled into the stadium, carrying the day’s contingent of protestors. The women quickly took a spot under the tent and started shouting slogans. “We don’t want country liquor, we want education,” they changed. “If the anger of women boils over, brandy shops will be broken into pieces.”

Each day, four or five villages in the region send a bunch of women to represent them at the protest. This rotational strategy keeps the agitation alive, even as it ensures that participants do not have to stop their work at home for the entire duration of the protest.

“Please stop the sale of liquor!” urged Mariamma, a woman from Aravali village on the outskirts of Raichur. “I have borne the brunt of alcoholism in my house after my husband took to drinking. We would have nothing to eat. I have had to go to the field to find work to keep my children alive. Even now, as we speak, he is lying there at home drunk out of his mind.”

The 71-day protest in Raichur district. Photo credit: Archana Nathan
The 71-day protest in Raichur district. Photo credit: Archana Nathan

A long-standing demand

The anguish is not new. Tempers have been on the boil since October, 2016, when over 15,000 villagers, most of them women, arrived in Raichur to demand a ban on the sale of liquor in the state. Many of them declared that in the next state elections, they would vote for the party that promised to ban alcohol. Exactly a year later, six months before elections in the state, an estimated 40,000 women gathered in the city again to reiterate their demand. The elections in Karnataka are scheduled for May 12.

In February, at a meeting between Congress President Rahul Gandhi and farmers in Sindhanur, 90 km from Raichur city, a farmer urged Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to ban alcohol. “Sir, we don’t want you to even waive farmers’ loans,” she said. “Please just ban alcohol.” The moderator of the interaction then asked the men in the gathering to raise their hands if they felt that alcohol should be banned. Nearly everyone did so. But Siddaramaiah dismissed the idea. “It is not possible, or practical to ban alcohol,” he said. “Sit down all of you. What is this – all the people who enjoy drinking are raising their hands.” The crowd cheered.

Siddaramaiah had then said that the only way prohibition would work was if it was implemented across the country. “In Gujarat, there is prohibition, but that has not stopped the consumption of alcohol,” he said. “Maharashtra implemented it and then withdrew it. Many states similarly have implemented and withdrawn it subsequently.”

He added: “The Central government has to pass a law for the whole country banning alcohol. That is the only way it will be effective.”

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An agitation begins

The Raichur agitation began right after this. For now, the women want the government to at least begin by banning the sale of liquor at the gram panchayat level. “Constitutionally [according to the 73rd amendment], if a rule is passed by the gram panchayat, it is has to be respected as a law,” said Renuka of Mahila Okkuta. “We have even passed the rule [banning alcohol] in close to 10 gram panchayats so far, but have been unable to get people to respect it. We have learnt that the sales targets of liquor shops have been increased by the government each year. These shops, in the pressure to sell more, are ruining our lives.”

In his budget speech earlier this year, Siddaramaiah said the excise revenue target for 2017-’18 was Rs 18,050 crore, out of which only Rs 14,572 crore had been realised. He also announced that the state was looking to collect Rs 17,600 crore excise revenue in the current financial year.

Renuka admitted that she did not expect instant results. “We may or may not achieve anything by this elections,” she said. “But this agitation is beyond the elections – it started much before and will go on until alcohol is banned and we are free.”

Women, a political force

The consequences of rampant alcoholism are far-reaching and tragic.

Around 12 km from Raichur, inside the Dalit Madiga colony in Marchatahaal village, 70-year-old Barsamma’s eyes welled-up as she spoke of her 40-year-old son who died due to liver failure a few years ago. Excessive drinking is known to cause liver damage.

“He would drink a lot and beat up my daughter-in-law,” she recalled. “Unable to take it anymore, she, along with my grandchildren, left for her mother’s house. My son continued to drink and smoke and finally passed away. My daughter-in-law is now back and earns for the family. We had to stop my granddaughter’s schooling and put her to work in the fields too. Somehow, can you please get this alcohol banned? We didn’t even have the money to bury my son properly.”

Barsamma (right) lost her alcoholic son to liver disease a few years ago. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan
Barsamma (right) lost her alcoholic son to liver disease a few years ago. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan

In Gabbur, a village 30 km north-east of Raichur, Indira spoke of young boys with liver conditions admitted to the health centre where she works as a nurse. “What is the reason for this?” she asked. “If the reason was sorrow or dissatisfaction with our social and economic circumstances, we women should drink far more.”

She pointed out that it was unrealistic to expect political parties to ban liquor as they were the ones who supplied men with alcohol during elections. “What can we expect from them then?” she said.

From Raichur all the way up to Yadgir, Shahpur and Surpur cities, villagers admitted that during previous elections they had been paid Rs 200 each to vote. The men were given a bottle of liquor too, but only after they had cast their vote.

In Ratnaala, a Dalit colony off Surpur in Yadgir district, 61-year-old Maralingappa said he is ready to support a ban on alcohol. “When I was young, I didn’t care,” he said. “Now, when I see young boys in the village drinking, I realise my mistake.”

When his 18-year-old grandson he was asked if he too drank liquor, he only smiled. Standing nearby, his sister nodded. “All the boys drink,” she said, grimly.

‘A serious situation

In Ulkal, a village around 10 km from Shahpur city, Mallamma, roughly 50 years old, said she did not care about the upcoming Assembly elections. But her eyes blazed with anger when the topic of alcohol was brought up. “You get that banned somehow,” she said. Mallamma belongs to the Kuruba community, from which the chief minister also hails. Asked if she had conveyed her demand to Siddaramaiah, she retorted: “How? When he or his representatives come here, they all meet the men and go away. No one cares about what we women want.”

Abhay Kumar, an activist in Raichur, was baffled as to why political parties ignored women. “Why doesn’t Rahul Gandhi or Amit Shah consider women a political force?” he said. “Don’t politicians care about the demands of women?”

He added that the consequences of alcohol abuse in Karnataka were serious. “I understand banning things may not be the way forward but the ground reality here is so severe that one needs to act urgently,” he said. “Ban it [alcohol] for a few years at least at the gram panchayat level to begin with, until things get better and families recover. Setting up rehabilitation centres alone will not solve anything. How many people will you rehabilitate?”

Karnataka’s addiction

The problem is not limited to Raichur. It extends to the entire state, said SH Lingegowda, a former excise inspector who is now part of the agitation for prohibition.

In 2016, Lingegowda quit his job to undertake a padayatra across the state to create awareness about the ill-effects of alcohol, and to demand prohibition. Lingegowda says his protest was the result having witnessed the consequences of rampant alcoholism for years.

“It goes back to 2004 when I first became an excise inspector,” Lingegowda said over the phone. “Everywhere I worked – be it Nagamandala, Hiriyur, Shimoga or Kodagu – I found that women and young girls were complaining about how the men were heavy drinkers and were beating them up each night. Their lives had become a living hell.”

Lingegowda will contest the state elections from Maddur on a ticket from Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj India party. He accused the state government of encouraging alcoholism. “The revenue estimated from the sale of alcohol has been steadily increasing every year,” he said. “It was Rs 16,000 crore in 2016-’17, which then became Rs 18,000 crore in the subsequent year, and has increased again this year. By doing this, the government is saying that alcohol consumption must increase.”

Lingegowda pointed out that the mandate of the excise department was to regulate the sale of alcohol, but it was now encouraging liquor consumption instead. “Strangely, the excise department itself is behaving like a salesman,” he said.

Labourers from Kosagi outside Raichur railway station. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan).
Labourers from Kosagi outside Raichur railway station. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan).

Bread vs alcohol

Back in Raichur, on the evening of April 2, down the road from the protest at the Mahatma Gandhi stadium, men thronged the government-run liquor shop. Most of them were labourers from Kosagi village across the border in Telangana. Each day, nearly 2,000 men board a train to come to Raichur, two hours away, in the hope that they will find work in construction sites in and around the city. They stand outside the station each morning as contractors size them up to see who among them is fit enough to work on the site that day, and return to Kosagi in the evening. “For Rs 200 or sometimes, even less [as wages], we travel all the way every day,” said Veeresh who had secured his bottle for the day. “After a whole day’s hard work, I need this bottle.”

In his other hand, he held a packet of bread. “I don’t usually save any money because sometimes after one bottle, I buy another,” he said. “Today, I managed to buy some bread for my child at home.”