By Syed Akbar
The Congress government's new excise policy in Andhra Pradesh has stirred the hornet's nest. More than generating additional revenue, the excise policy has brought to the fore the anger of illiterate women, kicking off a sort of anti-liquor movement.
Small but powerful groups of illiterate women are on war path attacking wine shops and forcing Excise authorities to close them.
During the last one month these women have targetted over three dozen wine shops spread across the State including a couple of them in the heart of Hyderabad. Their slogan is simple: "We have enough wine shops and we do not want more".
The women, particularly in rural areas, feel that the new excise policy, which came into effect from April 1, will spell doom for their families. The new policy envisages sanction of liquor shops and bars even in small areas with 25000 people and women have chalked out their own strategies to thwart the government's plans: force local panchayat bodies to impose fines ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 5000.
A study of the attacks reveals that women are particularly angry with wine shops opened near schools, temples or street corners. In Guntur district, a group of women damaged a liquor shop set up right in front of the historic Mahalakshmamma temple. A peculiar tradition is followed in the temple. The priest is always a woman.
Says the temple priest Kambala Kamalamma, "how dare they set up a shop near the holy place. Officials should apologise and shift it from our place. Most of the devotees are women and a wine shop in the vicinity means trouble by inebriated men". Guntur town alone witnessed about a dozen protests. The women relented only after district collector in charge Rahul Bojja assured them that the shop would be shifted.
Groups of women sprang a surprise in Hyderabad earlier this month when they destroyed two wine shops in the thickly populated areas of Sanatnagar and Banjara Hills. The nuisance created by these two shops was such that the women did not lodge a complaint with the police but decided to settle "scores" on their own. They gheraoed local legislator P Janardhan Reddy and forced the Excise authorities to close down the shops.
Seeing the intensity of the movement, police and intelligence agencies have warned that the anti-liquor agitations, though sporadic, will have wider political and electoral ramifications on the Congress as municipal and panchayat polls are due in the next eight months. The State government, has, however, taken the movement rather lightly as the women groups are not backed by any political or social group.
It seems history is repeating itself in Andhra Pradesh after a decade. The anti-liquor movement, which rocked the State in 1994-95 forcing then Telugu Desam government to impose total prohibition, is gradually taking shape once again. And this time there are no politics involved and the people's ire is spontaneous, unorganised and widespread.
Like in the earlier movement, illiterate women without a fixed source of income are leading the protest. They have attacked dozens of wine shops and did not spare even the toddy outlets. A notable feature this time is that wine shops in Hyderabad are also not spared. Women in some villages have imposed total prohibition and punished those violating the code. Fine ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 5000 is being imposed with the active support of local panchyats.
What is surprising is that unorganised women groups in villages are enforcing total ban on intoxicants including toddy, the traditional drink in the backward Telangana region.
Though the AP High Court had struck down the new excise policy, the State government went ahead to award licences to about 400 new wine shops. Already the State has 7500 liquor shops up from a mere 1000 shops when prohibition was lifted in 1996. The previous TD government had issues licences to 7,609 shops in 2003-2004 and planned to permit 842 more. The Congress Government simply added to the numbers, besides relaxing the Excise rules to facilitate sanction of bar licences in smaller areas with a population of 25,000 or more.
The State government wants to generate more revenue through liquor to meet the finances for development works. In its anxiety to award licences, the government did not bother to verify whether the new shops are being set up in residential localities. Women now do not want any wine shop or bar in their areas or in the vicinity of schools and places of worship.
Women in the neighbouring Krishna district have taken up a different movement together. Their fight is against illicit liquor. A bunch of gutsy women in Atlapragada village of A. Kondur mandal in Krishna district have been discreetly raiding the illicit hideouts. The operation is simple: raid the illicit distillation point and damage the brew. Inspired by them, women from the neighbouring mandals went a step ahead and imposed total ban on consumption and brewing of arrack.
"Ban on liquor at the local level has brought prosperity to our families. Earlier, our men used to return home late in the night after consuming liquor under mango orchards. They splurged the hard-earned
money and returned home empty handed. With no alcohol around, now we could save a little from our daily earnings", observes middle-aged Udurubati Kamalabai of Kunapuraju Parva village with pride in her eyes.
Officials, however, do not want to attach much importance to these agitations as is evident from what Guntur deputy commissioner of Excise Vishnu Swaroop Reddy says. "The objections are very trivial. We received many complaints, but going by the rule we do not consider some places of worship at all. Only those in the notified category are taken care of", he argues. Strangely enough, Vizianagaram Excise superintendent G Koteswara Rao supports the argument of Swaroop Reddy.
In some place, the anti-liquor agitation, though spontaneous, has all the trappings of an organised movement. Women, whenever, they raid on liquor hideouts, take photographs as evidence. Young Budhamarthi Kankavajram of Kambhampadu village, does not want their case to become weak when it goes to court.
"We click pictures for evidence before taking away all their utensils and ingredients into our possession. We have also framed rules that all those who prepare and consume liquor are penalised heavily. And, the idea has thus far worked out well", she points out.
Taking a cue from their counterparts in urban and rural areas, even tribal women living in far-flung thandas have successfully stopped their men from consuming or brewing illicit liquor. Initially S Razia, a resident of Seetharampuram tribal habitation in Krishna district, faced trouble from forced boozers. They did not take her word seriously. As local tribal women joined hands with Razia, the movement grew stronger. "We are feeling the change though still some men go to the neighbouring Khammam to fetch liquor. Soon we will stop them too", chips in V T Kondamalli of Konathamatmakuru.
In the backward Warangal district too, women have put up a brave fight against the local liquor lobby. Today there is no liquor or toddy shop in Kamaram village of the Tadwai mandal. “We are slapping a fine of Rs 500 on those who break our law. The funds will go to our common good fund for development of the village like developing local PHC and school and repairing village borewell", points out S Rama Devi, who heads a self-help group.
-help group leader. Similarly, women in Babu Naik Thanda of the Mahabubabad division in the district also opposed the opening of liquor shop in their area, where many young people died due to liquor poisoning.
The anti-arrack campaign, which took off in the remote Nizamabad village in the naxal infested Konaraopet mandal a month ago, has now spread across the district. Village panchayats have been forced to adopt a unanimous resolution to impose a fine of Rs 5,000 on anyone caught selling or maintaining illicit liquor shop. The fine is not high considering that as many as 15 persons died in the district due to liquor poisoning.
Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, women in Nellore district have targeted Excise officials holding them responsible for the spurt in the liquor shops. Their argument is that officials have given a go by to all standing rules to please the strong liquor lobby in the district.
Middle aged Roshamma of Dubagunta in Nellore district created history when she revolted against the State government's excise policy in mid-1990s. Her agitation forced TD founder NT Rama Rao to impose total prohibition, which however, was lifted by his successor and son-in-law N Chandrababu Naidu.
A decade has passed since then. The government has changed. But the problem of liquor and families breaking up because of the bottle remain unchanged. Now Andhra Pradesh is witnessing dozens of Roshammas springing up all over. Is the State headed for a total prohibition once again? The Congress has promised total prohibition in its election manifesto. Let's wait and see.
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