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Banning alcohol in Rajasthan, one vote at a time

Village councils in the Indian state sign petitions to shut down alcohol shops but the administration is dragging its feet over fears of loss of revenue

Gulf News

Badam Devi walked to the polling booth in Rojda village in Jaipur, the capital of the north-western Indian state of Rajasthan, on a hot Sunday. Her sprightly footsteps offered a sharp contrast to her age and frail body as the 84-year-old clutched her identity card.

“It has taken us a lot of struggle to get to this stage,” said the elderly woman. “We will not fritter this opportunity away.”

People of five villages of Rojda gram panchayat (village council) struggled for close to a year to use the provision of referendum against a liquor shop in their area that’s 25 kilometres from the district capital.

On March 19, after counting the votes, officials of the excise department declared Rojda an alcohol-free panchayat. Villagers, especially women, voted overwhelmingly against alcohol. Out of 4,206 voters in the five villages, 2,270 voters cast ballots against a liquor shop in the panchayat.

A year ago, in a panchayat more than 200km away in southern Rajasthan, people used the provision for the first time, with 90 per cent of voters opting to close the liquor store.

The Rajasthan Excise Act, 1975, has a provision for closing liquor outlets. At least 20 voters of a panchayat, or a municipal ward, need to sign a petition against a liquor shop and present it to the district collector. The signatures are then verified and then, the excise department sets a date for the local plebiscite. A simple majority of votes against alcohol sale means the district administration issues a notification for a permanent ban in the panchayat.

The provision was used for the first time last year in Kachhbali, 270km south of Jaipur, when women of the panchayat, led by their newly-elected sarpanch (council head) Geeta Devi, submitted a petition with 1,500 signatures to the Rajsamand district collector on February 27, 2016. The signatures were verified within two days, and the polling took place on March 29.

Out of 2,886 voters in 12 revenue villages of the panchayat, 2,039 voted with 1,937 in favour of a ban and 33 against it. The remaining votes were declared invalid, making Kachhbali the first panchayat in Rajasthan to ban an alcohol shop.

The events in Kachhbali inspired women in other villages to push for votes on banning alcohol shops and they gained traction as other panchayats began to agitate and organise anti-alcohol campaigns in their own districts.

But the campaigns also caused concerns. For the state government, the sale of alcohol is a money maker: It earned Rs73 billion (Dh4.17 billion) in revenue from the sale of alcohol in 7,640 shops during the 2016 financial year.

“The government obviously doesn’t want to forego this kind of revenue and procrastinates when it receives applications for a referendum,” says Sawai Singh, the 64-year-old state president of Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyan (addiction-free India campaign), a national body led by well-known social activist Medha Patkar, who led the struggle for the people affected by the controversial Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada River in Gujarat.

Singh’s charge holds true in Rojda, where people had to approach the Rajasthan High Court to have a voting day approved.

“We gave the application with signatures to the district collector on March 13, 2016, but nothing happened to it and a shop was allotted in April,” says 31-year-old Uttam Kumar Sharma, a social worker who stewarded the anti-liquor movement in the panchayat.

“We began our protests from April 1 and struggled for 353 days before we achieved our goal,” he adds. “We courted arrests, staged sit-ins, met the chief secretary, and when nothing worked, filed a case in the High Court.”

On February 13, the court ordered the administration to hold the vote on March 19. Similarly, in the neighbourhood of Kachhbali, six panchayats — Thaneta, Thikarwas, Mandawar, Barjaal, Barar and Kukarkheda — tried the referendum route to close liquor shops but failed.

“In Thaneta and Thikarwas, the sub-divisional magistrate came for verification of the signatures with a notice of just one day,” says Shankar Singh, a member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) “All the villagers who had signed the petition were not available, so he declared the petition null and void because signatures couldn’t be verified.”

MKSS then organised the villagers protest on March 24 in the town of Bhim, the location of the sub-divisional magistrate’s office.

Villagers in Mandawar and Barjaal are awaiting the verification of signatures even as new shops have been allotted. In Barar and Kukarkheda, villagers are pushing for votes before the end of the financial year, Singh says.

In Barar, a village in the Rajsamand district, the villagers went a step further, refusing to let the liquor shop open. “When they failed to get the referendum over before this year’s liquor allotments on April 1, the villagers sat together in March and decided to not rent out their properties or land to the liquor vendor,” says Jawan Singh, sarpanch of the panchayat. “Now, although a shop is allotted to the panchayat, we have not allowed the vendor to open it here.”

Girdhari Singh, a former government schoolteacher, who is at the forefront of the anti-liquor campaign in Barar, says the villagers submitted the application with signatures of more than 20 per cent of its voters to the district collector around mid-March, but the administration did not verify them and hasn’t set a date for a referendum yet.

Anti-liquor campaigns across Rajasthan are led by women because women suffer the most due to alcoholism, says 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.

“Wives face domestic violence, women are harassed on the street by drunken men, and girls find it difficult to navigate paths where liquor shops are located,” says the 37-year-old campaigner who participates in anti-liquor sit-ins and demonstrations.

“My estimate is that at least 2,000 gram panchayats have given applications for referendum to their district administrations,” she says. “But the problem is, the government doesn’t want to act on them for obvious reasons.”

“The Supreme Court ban on liquor shops within 500 metres of national and state highways affected 2,800 shops in Rajasthan,” Pooja says. “The excise department shifted most of them to residential areas. That’s why you see so many protests happening across the state where women are staging sit-ins, singing bhajans and organising religious functions outside the shops to force vendors to keep them closed.”

Gurcharan Chhabra’s younger daughter-in-law, Poonam, is also campaigning against liquor in the state. Pooja and Poonam regularly share pictures of campaigns they organise in municipal wards, panchayats and outside liquor shops with newspaper reporters in Rajasthan, and claim credit for moving many shops away from residential areas.

Sawai Singh isn’t convinced by the government’s revenue numbers and he says it can earn more after total prohibition. “We have worked out the economics. For the government to earn Rs8,000 revenue, people spend at least 10 times this money on alcohol. When there’s prohibition, this money will be spent elsewhere, giving the government tax revenue,” he says.

At a meeting last July at Delhi’s Gandhi Shanti Pratisthan, Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyan explained the thinking over diversified revenues.

“Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar was present at the meeting and he liked the idea,” Singh says.

Rajasthan implemented full prohibition for just over two years in the 1970s, when Janata Dal ruled the state.

“Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was the chief minister and my father-in-law sat with 106 MLAs [Members of the Legislative Assembly] of his own party to demand prohibition. The government bowed to their pressure,” Pooja recalls.

The campaigners for prohibition link alcohol consumption to crimes against women, deaths on the roads due to drunk driving, and deaths due to alcohol-related illnesses. However, even as the campaign for total prohibition gains steam, more and more village panchayats are taking the referendum route against alcohol sales in Rajasthan.

Rakesh Kumar is a writer based in Jaipur, India.

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