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A quiet revolution: Women lead fight for liquor referendum in Rajasthan

Women in Rasjathan’s Kachhbali got a liquor vend closed through a referendum. Following in the their footsteps, other villages in the state have begun organising campaign seeking panchayat plebiscites to shut down alcohol vends.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2017 09:18 IST
Rakesh Goswami
Rakesh Goswami
Hindustan Times, Kachhbali/ Barjaal (Rajsamand)
Liquor referendum,Alcohol,Kachhbali gram panchayat
Disappointed women voters show pattern of the ballot paper used during recent voting to close the liquor shop, at the polling center at Atal Sewa Kendra, in Barjal panchayat in Bhim tehsil of Rajsamand district, Rajasthan on 19 August.(HT Photo)

A small house in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district is a symbol of victory for women of Kachhbali gram panchayat.

They got a liquor vend, that operated from this house, closed through a referendum, a first in the country. The success triggered a quiet revolution, prompting 500 other village bodies across the desert state to seek a similar plebiscite against alcohol.

It was in March 2016 that women of Kachhbali, 270 km south of Jaipur, went into campaign mode to close the sole liquor vend catering to 12 villages. They said the shop was responsible for destroying their family lives and the easy availability of liquor had made it difficult for their girls to venture out, as drunken men would pass lewd remarks.

The campaign picked up steam and got overwhelming support, not only from women. Seventy per cent voted in favour of the liquor shop’s closure: 1,937 of 2,886 voted in favour of closure.

The Rajasthan Excise (Closure of Country Liquor Shop by Local Option) Rules, 1975, introduced the provision to close liquor shops through a panchayat referendum. In 2014, the rules were extended to urban local bodies.

The provision was unused till March, 2016 when the women of Kachhbali approached the district administration for a referendum.

“Now that the vend is shut, you won’t find drunken men on the roads in the village and girls can pass this stretch without the fear of being leered at,” Kheemi Devi, Kachhbali resident.

They were lucky as their counterparts in states such as Uttarakand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh do not have a legal provision to force the government to close vends.

However, persistent protests have forced the state governments to make amends to the annual liquor policy, whereby the number of liquor shops have been reduced, especially in rural areas, from where such demand is higher.

Prohibition elsewhere

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced prohibition in a phased manner, asking the excise department to reduce the number of shops. The government has also asked shops to maintain a register of “habitual drinkers” and inform the police about them as a deterrent.

In high spirits
Persistent protests by locals have forced the state governments to make amends to the annual liquor policy, whereby the number of liquor shops have been reduced, especially in rural areas, from where such demand is higher.
The provision
Under the Rajasthan Excise (Closure of Country Liquor Shop by Local Option) Rules, 1975, a liquor shop in a panchayat shall be closed if the 51% voters vote for it.
The process
AN APPLICATION to the sub-division officer (SDO) of the area with signatures or thumb impressions of 20% of the voters for closure needs to be submitted.
THE SDO conducts a spot enquiry to find whether 20% of the voters have actually signed, and sends the application to the excise commissioner.
THE EXCISE commissioner asks district collector to ascertain the public opinion in the panchayat on the question of closure of liquor shop by holding a poll.
THE COLLECTOR issues a public notice and the poll is supposed to be held 15 days later. A presiding officer is appointed to conduct the poll.
IF 51% of the total voters vote in favour of closure, liquor vend has to be closed

Uttarakhand chief minister TS Rawat had called for more regulation to discourage liquor consumption after women protested against opening of new liquor shops but has ruled out prohibition considering that the state earns ₹2,000 crore from excise revenue every year.

Likewise, Congress-led Punjab government has also announced that it will reduce number of liquor shops in villages to discourage consumption.

More than a year after its liquor shop was closed, Kachhbali looks sober.

“You won’t find drunken men on the roads in the village and girls can pass this stretch without the fear of being leered at,” says 70-year-old Kheemi Devi, a firebrand woman who mouths expletives to describe how drunken men mistreated women – in and outside their houses – when liquor was available at their doorstep.

“We applied for closure of liquor vends on March 13, 2016, but voting was held a year later, on March 19, 2017, that, too, after the high court’s directions,” Uttam Kumar Sharma , resident, Rojda in Jaipur.

Geeta Devi, the 35-year-old village head, recalls that such was the nuisance by drunken men that women of the village made a bargain — they will vote for her only if she could close the vend.

“They (men) began drinking since morning and splurged earnings of even their wives from NREGA (a government scheme that guarantees 100 days of work for wage) on liquor,” she says.

Kachhbali set off a trend: women in other villages began campaigns to use the referendum route to close liquor vends.

Sawai Singh, 64, of Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyan (addiction-free India campaign), a national body led by Medha Patkar, says more than 500 panchayats in the state applied for voting “but success of women in Kachhbali made the government and district administrations stonewall the applications”.

Like many other state governments, alcohol is a money spinner in Rajasthan and a reason why the state is trying to block referendums. The state earned Rs 7,300 in 2016-17 from 7,640 shops, second biggest money grosser after value added tax (now replaced with Goods and Service Tax).

Closure attempts

At least six panchayats in Kachhbali’s neighbourhood – Mandawar, Barjaal, Barar, Thaneta, Thekarwas and Kukarkheda – applied for closure in 2016 but faced resistance from the local administration.

In Barjaal, a poll was held on August 12 this year after the villagers threatened to move court against the administration’s delay in announcing the date. Barjaal, however, lost the poll by 130 votes and locals allege that it happened at the behest of the liquor lobby and incorrect counting of votes.

In Mandawar, the verification process got over long time ago but the date for poll has not been fixed yet. “In Thaneta and Thikarwas, the SDO came for verification of signatures with notice of only one day. Many of those who had signed the application were out of village and the process was aborted,” says Singh.

Despite the resistance, villagers of Rojda panchayat in Jaipur finally tasted success in March this year, but only after legal intervention. “We applied for closure on March 13, 2016, but voting was held a year later, on March 19, 2017, that too after the high court’s directions,” says 31-year-old Uttam Kumar Sharma who led the anti-liquor movement.

Excise commissioner OP Yadav, however, dismisses the charge that referendums are hitting revenues. According to him, closure of vends is leading to boot-legging. “We have registered 19 cases of illegal sale of liquor in the state this year,” said Yadav.

Fruits of labour

Rajasthan’s women, who are leading the anti-liquor campaigns are a happy lot. Pooja Chhabra, daughter-in-law of legislator Gurcharan Chhabra who died in November 2015 after a month-long hunger strike demanding prohibition in the state, says women bear the brunt of alcoholism.

“Wives face domestic violence, and girls face harassment on the streets,” says Pooja.

Women of Kachhbali say things are looking up now.

Though the men have not entirely stopped drinking, they now have to travel longer distances to get their supplies. Heera Kanwar put the matter in perspective: it has led to a reduction in incidences of wife beating and drunken brawls.

First Published: Aug 25, 2017 08:39 IST