Ghanshyam Kewat does not remember when he began drinking. “The tipsy feeling it produced felt great,” he said. “But now I can’t drink any more, because all the illegal distilleries around the village have been destroyed.” Ghanshyam is all of 13 years old.
Ghanshyam lives in Shekhpur Gadha, a village whose name most Uttar Pradesh residents recognize immediately. Located in the Kalpi block of Jalaun district, 170 km southwest of Lucknow, it is the village where Bandit Queen turned MP, Phoolan Devi, was born.
Illegal distilleries had proliferated around Shekhpur Gadha for 15 years until a brave woman sarpanch Bhagwati Devi (40), decided to take them on. “Our religious procession for Bhairon Baba was going around the village, when some drunken youth picked a fight with us,” she said. “It turned serious. That day I thought, enough was enough.”
That very evening — she remembered the date clearly, June 6, 2008 — she summoned a meeting of village elders. “We formed a gaon sudhar samiti (village reforms committee) which decided to put an end to the distilleries.”
The committee had a tough job on its hands. Almost every villager – including children – was already an addict. The booze was very cheap – a small peg available for as little as Rs 2. “You’d see drunks sleeping under every other tree, any time of the day,” said Rammilan Nishad, an Allahabad resident, but a frequent visitor to the village.
“Young men didn’t want to work. Few children went to school. But now it has all changed.”
The methods the 36-member gaon sudhar samiti adopted were initially not pretty. “We simply smashed the bhattis (distilleries),” said Rambabu Nishad, a member.
“The distillery owners hit back, often attacking us. Many were injured. But finally we got rid of them.”
To prevent residents from slipping back into self-indulgence, Bhagwati Devi began the tradition of prabhat pheris (dawn processions) every day. “We needed to sustain what we had achieved,” said Sidhnath, Bhagwati’s husband. “It’s been a year now, but we haven’t missed holding the prabhat pheri even once.”
The administration supported her. “If anyone tries to restart a bhatti, I have only to ring our local thana and cops will stop them,” she said.
Today, Ghanshyam attends school regularly. “Now I only drink milk,” he revealed.