Indian women are voting more than ever before. In many states, their turnout is now higher than that of men. But political discussions in the country rarely feature women – even in the media.

What are women thinking on the eve of the 2019 election?

Aarefa Johari and Nayantara Narayanan travel to find out in Half the Vote, a series that brings you the stories and perspectives of women – only women – on life and politics.

Ningamma Basappa Savanur is fed up with the silence from politicians on the one big demand from women in North Karnataka – a statewide ban alcohol.

Savanur, who lives in Dharwad, is an activist with the Grameena Kooli Karmikara Sanghatane, a collective of unorganised workers in the region. The collective is one of about 30 organisations that has been running the Madhya Nisheda Andolan, a movement for prohibition of alcohol, since 2016.

A week before North Karnataka goes to vote, Savanur was at a meeting of the collective in Raichur. Across the district, village households have borne the brunt of the ill-effects of easy access to alcohol, especially country liquor. Women from villages here say their husbands drinking habits have pushed them into poverty, that the men get drunk and beat their wives, that they drink at the cost of feeding and educating their children.

“We decided to start the Madhya Nishedha Andolan because in many villages that we went to we saw men wasting their families’ entire incomes on buying country liquor,” said Savanur. “In many houses there are two or three small children who have nothing to eat but the men will be drinking.”

The movement in Karnataka intensified after Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar implemented prohibition in his state in 2017 and called for a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol. In the summer of 2018, just before the Karnataka Assembly elections, women from about 600 villages in Raichur gathered in the town for a 71-day protest for prohibition – a day each for 71 years of India’s independence.

In January 2019, about 2,000 women from rural areas across the state held a 200-km padayatra ending in the state capital Bengaluru demanding prohibition.

The women have only received assurances that their demands will be looked into.

“There has been no serious response from the government or from any political party,” said Savanur. “The liquor manufacturers are all politicians and their associates. The consumption of country liquor does not affect them. It only goes to the poor houses where it ruins lives. That’s why they do not ban alcohol.”

She does not buy the argument that revenue generated from liquor sales is crucial to the state government. All residents of Karnataka, including women, are paying all sorts of other taxes, she said.

The Madhya Nisheda Andolan is using the Lok Sabha elections to make all political parties take them more seriously. Savanur and other activists have been going from village to village across 18 districts in the state, mostly in North Karnataka, asking women either not to vote at all or to vote NOTA, which is the none-of-the-above option available to voters who do not find any candidate suitable to hold elected office.

Savanur claimed that the response from women has been strong. She believes even men, who only drink because alcohol is available to them, will support prohibition.

“If alcohol is banned in the whole state even the men will be happy,” she said. “They will bring their earnings home, they will sit with their families and eat, they will pay their children’s school fees.”

Women of Jegarkal village near Raichur city gather to listen to Madhya Nisheda Andolan activists on why they should think about voting NOTA on April 23. Photo credit: Nayantara Narayanan

Personal experience

Although Savanur has been a part of the movement through the collective, it is her personal experience that makes her a strong advocate for prohibition.

She has three sisters and two brothers. All three of her sisters are married. One of her sister’s husbands died due to excessive drinking when his child was only six months old.

“I have seen the effect alcohol has on my sisters’ marriages,” she said. “One brother-in-law drank himself to death. The other two also drink. They do not bring even one rupee home for household expenses or children’s school fees.”

Her younger brother also drinks heavily. He still does manual work in Haveri and his wife and child depend on his daily income. “On the days he drinks he just lounges about all day,” said Savanur. “On the days he doesn’t, he wakes up early and goes to work.”

Savanur is 32 and has chosen to remain unmarried. She lives alone in Dharwad district about 100 km away from her parents in Haveri. She joked that her mother has developed high blood sugar worrying about her remaining single.

Then, she said seriously, “Just looking at how these men behave, I don’t want to get married.”

Women in Jegarkal village respond when an activist asks them how many think it is a good idea to withhold their vote to call attention to a liquor ban. Photo credit: Nayantara Narayanan

Navigating government systems

Till eight years ago, Savanur used to work as an agricultural labourer in her village in Haveri district. It was hard labour and she did not like working for farmer landlords.

“Someone is always telling you what you are doing is wrong,” she explained. “You have no choice but to listen to whatever they say.”

Her first encounter with activism was when renowned environment activist SR Hiremath visited her village and his organisation India Development Service helped set up village associations for education, training, agricultural support and income generation. Savanur and her mother used to attend the meetings.

Savanur, who has studied only till Class 8, started taking minutes of the meetings in Kannada. The organisation even gave her veterinary training on how to take care of cattle but her mother, who was worried about her safety while working with animals, asked her not to pursue it.

Savanur then joined the collective of unorganised workers. She said it gives her the freedom to travel to various districts, meet people across the state and help them with tasks like getting their ration cards, pensions, access to clean water. The collective pays her Rs 7,000 a month from a fund created out of membership fees.

“I work with people in a village and tell them which officials to approach and how to get their work done,” she said. “I have a sense of identity from the work that I do here.”

Even though she never completed school, Savanur has learnt about government systems through her work. She knows the roles and responsibilities of various government offices and functionaries.

In her experience, most politicians only subvert systems. “Political parties say that they will do work for people, they take oaths and make promises but they do very little real work,” she said.

The collective works to help women from villages stand for panchayat elections but constantly have to fight pressure from political parties. “Some MLA or minister will come and say ‘this is our candidate, you must vote for him,’” said Savanur. “They put pressure on the people to vote for their candidates and they oppose anyone who wants to stand to do proper work.”

What is the best way to get anything done?

“Nothing happens if one person goes to a government official or an MLA alone,” she said. “There is strength in numbers only. Only if you go in a group you have a chance of holding them accountable.”

It is this strength in numbers that the Madhya Nisheda Andolan is relying on April 23 when the districts of North Karnataka go to vote.

“If parties are worried that men will not vote for them if they ban alcohol then do they not care about the women’s vote?” asked Savanur.

And Savanur has thought one step further. “If they still do not respond I think people should stop paying their land tax, their electricity bills, all other taxes,” she said. “Doesn’t the government run on this also? In my mind, I think this is the next step.”

Read more in the series:

A weaver in Telangana who will vote for the first time says that no government has helped her family

A businesswoman in Mumbai wants Modi back because he is a ‘powerful person’

A Telangana farmer wants to protect her land, but will vote for the party her village picks

This shop owner in Hyderabad is voting for BJP – even though her business has fallen

A Muslim woman in Godhra says she’s proud that a man from her state is prime minister

A Bengaluru garment worker says politicians ignore the sector since it employs women

An anganwadi helper in Tamil Nadu wants someone to fulfill Jayalalithaa’s promises

A sarpanch in Gujarat credits her husband and Modi for development in her village