Parvati Mali (51), the story goes, was poisoned. Mali was the sarpanch of Vashi village in Kolhapur, 396 km south-east of Mumbai, and was among the first women in the region to raise her voice in 2005 against the proliferation of liquor dens.
Before she could set in motion the process for a ban on liquor stores, she was lured to a party and her food poisoned.
So the story goes.
Sunita Shinde (50) was luckier — she just lost her job.
Shinde, sarpanch of Vathar village, received petitions from the wives of several alcoholics in her village. The women wanted her to shut down the local liquor store.
When she set the motion in process, 11 of the 14 gram panchayat members moved a motion of no-confidence against her on July 23.
“I was thrown out, but I made sure the process was completed before I left,” she says.
Mali’s death had effectively halted efforts to ban liquor in Kolhapur’s villages.
Now, after Shinde’s success in Vathar four years on, there has been a sudden spurt of ‘darubandi’ (banning of alcohol) activity in the district.
Women in the villages of Maharashtra were given the right in 1994 to demand the closure of liquor shops if more than 50 per cent of the female population voted against them. It was a move aimed to help deal with alcoholic menfolk.
The movement was slow to catch on, but 15 years on, the ruling Congress-NCP combine could benefit from this move to help women cut straight through the red tape to clean up their villages and their homes.
“Anyone opposing us does not get our vote,” says Swati Kshirsagar of Vathar.
The liquor shop owners, however, are not taking the bans lying down.
In Siddhnerli village, scheduled to vote on September 16, the country liquor shop and beer bar owners filed a joint petition in every local court declaring that their shops were outside village precincts.
One court issued a stay and the secret ballot was cancelled. Enraged Sarpanch Suvarna Kamble (40) then locked the gram panchayat office, saying she would not allow any other proceedings to be conducted till the vote was taken.
The shops were eventually found to be well within the village borders and less than 100 metres from the local primary school. Now, the village is fighting to get the court case dismissed.
If it’s not legal petitions, it’s backroom manipulation. In Bhadole, the poll was scheduled for the same day as Gauri Pooja, an important Hindu festival.
“They were hoping most of us would have to miss it,” says Sulochana Patil (32), acting president of a gram panchayat council. “But we were all there. We would rather miss our pooja than the voting.”
For the villages that manage to secure a ban, the difference to the women’s lives is marked. “For 40 years, nearly all the money that came into our house was spent by my husband on alcohol,” says Tanubai Vadd (66) of Badole. “Now we have money for essentials, and even a few special clothes and playthings for my grandchild.”
“I am all for darubandi in my district,” says Kolhapur collector Laxmikant Deshmukh. “Once polling is done, I make sure that the liquor shops are shut down in 24 hours.”
Then again, a ban isn’t always the end of the matter.
Take Aknabai Chavan (62) of Vathar. Her husband died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2005, her father-in-law and his father before him were alcoholics too. So are her two sons.
So she was glad when the village finally ordered its liquor store shut. But the men have found another one in nearby Vadgaon, which is covered by a municipal council, not a gram panchayat.
Since the 1994 law is applicable only to villages, she has no hope of them now breaking the habit.