Women in several Indian states are campaigning for prohibition (Photo: Bismillah Geelani)

Women in several Indian states are campaigning for prohibition (Photo: Bismillah Geelani)

The government in India’s northern state of Bihar recently imposed a complete ban on alcohol in the state. 

But the death of more than a dozen people after they consumed fake liquor has sparked a debate on the effectiveness of the ban.

Bismillah Geelani has the story. 

At a hospital in Bihar’s Gopalganj district, Ramesh Yadav bursts into tears as the doctors inform him that his younger brother Sunil has passed away.

The death of the 27-year-old marks the 18th death that has occurred in this hospital in the past 24 hours, all from illegal liquor.

“I found him lying on the road. He had a severe headache and was vomiting. He also said that he was not able to see anything. I asked him what happened and whether he had had a drink and he said yes. I don’t understand where he got the liquor from,” Yadav recounts.

The sale and consumption of alcohol is banned in the state of Bihar.

The ruling coalition in the state imposed the prohibition earlier this year as a fulfilment of a promise they had made to the electorate.

“I think ultimately, in a democracy, the making of public policy must in some way internalise what the public itself is asking and, in Bihar at least, the demand for total prohibition came in an overwhelming and un-ambivalent manner from the people itself," says Bihar resident Verma.

"It was during the Bihar elections that the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had not imposed this earlier, began to get this feedback overwhelmingly from the people especially the women.”

In rural parts of India, such as Bihar, alcoholism is often seen as linked to domestic violence.

Mala, 35, had this experience growing up.

“My father never considered my mother even a human being, once he got drunk he would become so violent that he wouldn’t even spare the children. He would go totally out of mind. Besides the money he earned himself he would spend the money that we got from our land on liquor and the state of our poverty was such that at times we would go without food. Finally I and my sister had to give up education and start earning.”

After experiences and stories like this, many women in Bihar welcomed the ban, while several other state governments also announced their intention to follow suit.

But the string of deaths has sparked a debate about the efficacy of prohibition.

A 2014 World Health Organization (WHO) report argued that measures like prohibition are creating risk to consumers –  and actually allowing black markets to flourish.

Senior journalist Prem Shankar Jha is in full agreement.

“The experience of every country that has tried this for the same reasons is that the liquor drinking has not gone down among the poor, the quality of liquor has become much worse, the deaths have risen dramatically.”

Jha continued, “there is money being made on liquor, liquor drinking will not stop just as sex will not stop, but the money then goes to criminal elements and in Bihar they are already very strong. So do you want to further strengthen the criminal elements you have?”

Some women like writer Aditi Mittal say the government is using women’s safety as an excuse to curb people’s right to choice.

She argues that it is misogyny and not alcohol that causes domestic violence.

“Alcohol is an excuse for violence; it is not the reason for violence.” 

Mittal went on, “when women ask for something like prohibition they are asking for more rights over the family’s income, they are asking for more control over what happens with their own lives and that is not entirely done by alcohol. That is done by a systemic cultural change in the way we think.” 

“We want more respect. We need a more sensitive society and we want more sensitive police,” urged Mittal.

Prohibition in Bihar is also facing strong resistance because of the way it is  implemented.

The law includes measures of collective guilt, so if one person violates the law their entire family will also be punished.

Now even those who campaigned for the ban, women like Mala, are turning against it.

“We used to complain about it, but now we will be held guilty because of it. In a way this law is being used against us because if my husband commits a crime I am also going to suffer. It is our struggle, our movement that led to this ban, but now we feel we are being victimised with this,” revealed Mala.

The Bihar government remains resolute in the face of criticism of the ban, but some members of the ruling have indicated their willingness to reconsider the concept of collective guilt. 

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