Getting Around Prohibition in Gujarat
Yet another hooch tragedy
The 'dry' state of Gujarat has witnessed yet another hooch tragedy, this time in villages in the Botad district. With more than 45 people reported dead and several hospitalised, public anger has once again hit the roof.
Ever since the deaths and hospitalizations from around 11 villages of the Barwala and Dhandhuka talukas of the Botad and Ahmedabad districts respectively, things have been moving along the expected trajectory of a crackdown on bootleggers, constitution of a probe panel and political allegations and counter allegations, since assembly polls are around the corner.
Yet there is a lot of skepticism among those well aware of prior hooch tragedies in the state. They feel that nothing concrete will come out and this episode too shall be forgotten with time. Nor will it become a poll issue.
As usual the ones at the receiving end remain the poor and the marginalized, whether it is the victims and survivors of the tragedy or a section of those facing the crackdowns. People are recalling the infamous laththa tragedy that rocked Ahmedabad in 2009 where as many as 148 people lost their lives and a few hundred lost their vision or suffered with morbidity. An inquiry commission led by Justice KM Mehta, a retired judge of the Gujarat High Court had come out with a detailed report running into more than 500 pages.
But the lessons drawn seem to have been forgotten with the passage of time and this time the tragedy has been repeated in Botad. The whole episode once again brings into focus the various dimensions of prohibition and its implementation.
To begin with it's a well known fact that liquor is available across Gujarat, where the police bootlegger nexus is reported to be well established. Those from well off sections manage to get smuggled brands while the poor manage with illegally distilled hooch.
This was well acknowledged by the Mehta Commission when it said, "So far as the present state is concerned, it is a common knowledge that connivance between the brewers and sections of the police make the hooch flow, particularly in festival season. Most, if not all, victims are the poor labourers. These families end up paying a terrible price for this. Alcoholism is a social menace that needs to be tackled in a sensitive, intelligent, multi-pronged strategy. Driving it underground, to dangerous devices, is clearly not the way. On the contrary, as suggested by the Commission, the proper way is by persuasion, education and awareness, which we have stated earlier."
The money that would have gone to the exchequer if prohibition was not in place obviously now goes to a well established network of individuals and hence the stakes involved are very high.
This reporter during his almost ten year stint in the state spread over three phases is yet to come over a single instance where someone wanted alcohol, had some time and the required money and still did not get it. Bootleggers can be found right from downtown areas to those residing in high-end residential societies. They can be unemployed youngsters to even office-going persons.
There are societal layers to liquor consumption as there are communities where it is not a taboo and there are traditions associated with it. And with the emergence of a new rich class in the urban areas and also some rural pockets, there has also come an acceptance of liquor consumption. Home delivery makes things all the more convenient.
There are relaxations for some categories like the visitors from outside who can get permits. There is also a category that can avail permits on medical grounds. Many such permits are often misused where the permit holder is not in need of alcohol on medical grounds and has managed to obtain such a permit, or the alcohol availed is consumed by someone other than the permit holder.
As well known observer Achyut Yagnik who has been documenting developments in Gujarat since it came into existence pointed out, "Prohibition was never totally effective in Gujarat."
This reporter can recall an interesting episode from 2004 of a tribal village named Chandapur on the border of Maharashtra whose residents had invoked the Gujarat Panchayat Act of 1998 to impose 'self rule' to drink at the time of festivals without fear of being harassed by the police or the prohibition department. Of course, the adopted resolution did not last since the resolution passed was open to interpretation.
At the same time Yagnik also underlined, "The control on sale of alcohol has also done good for the society. It has been particularly good for the women in the remote backward areas."
But the main question remains, why do hooch tragedies continue to be reported in the state at regular intervals?
Eminent sociologist Gaurang Jani has an interesting take on how things have shaped up in the state. He says that successive governments, no matter what party they are from, have never acknowledged the social capital that has been built in the state because of prohibition and the efforts made to prevent people from consuming intoxicants. Instead the preference has always been on the economic capital defined in terms of income, business opportunities and investments.
"It has been three generations that have grown with prohibition in place. There are lakhs of families that have never consumed alcohol. This is a social capital. When influential people from the state claim that Gujarat is a safe state, particularly for women, that celebrates the world's longest dance festival during Navratri or women can move freely even in the middle of the night, they never point out that prohibition is one of the factors behind it. Nowhere on the road will you find hoardings on prohibition. There is no discussion about it in educational institutions or universities. I have never seen seminars organized on the issue," he explained. One might come across advertisements about the fine imposed or punishment for being caught with liquor or being found in an inebriated state.
He further pointed out that at the same time there is a parallel setup where it is a custom among several communities among tribals as well as other castes to drink on occasions like birth and death. But there have been no social reforms coming either from the government or from the community itself to separate the two. "There are no caste panchayats to make a change," he said.
Jani went on to elaborate that the emergence of a neoliberal economy has led to the emergence of a class that is interested only in investments and how many corporates are headed to the state. He said the social capital because of abstaining from alcohol consumption does not figure even in the corporate social responsibility initiatives.
"With international exposure of the neo rich, a lifestyle where alcohol consumption is accepted got attached to it. I think we have missed the bus. It is all about priority. There has been no emphasis on social reform," he added.
Jani rued that even academics have been running away from the subject. He emphasized the need to study the issue in more detail to understand its sociological connotations.
Observers also point out that on one side there is often talk of the tax revenue lost because of prohibition and on the other there has emerged a parallel economy from the ever increasing consumption of alcohol in the state. To add to the crisis is the threat posed by drugs to the youth. Of late the state has been witnessing massive seizures of narcotics.
Yet another dimension to the issue is that of targeting of the most vulnerable communities whenever a hooch tragedy breaks out. Observers feel that such episodes provide an opportunity to the authorities to harass those already at the receiving end. Among those are members of the denotified tribes (DNTs) that continue to bear the stigma of being "criminals" despite their being denotified way back in 1952.
Quoting the landmark work by David Hardiman 'From Custom to Crime: The Politics of Drinking in Colonial South Gujarat', Jani explained how drinking was promoted among tribals by certain vested interests and they were later made criminals. The Gandhians later achieved some success in turning things around after working with such communities.
The Botad tragedy has led to the denotified tribe of Chharas being painted in poor light by sections of the media that has led to the members of the community seething with anger on being made 'scapegoats' always whether it is for thefts, hooch or any other illegal activity.
"It is nothing but a blame game. A narrative is developed to divert attention from failures of those who are supposed to prevent such happenings. If there is any element indulging in illegal activities, arrest him and let the law take its own course. Why paint the entire community black? But that is hardly done as that would fix accountability," said Dakxin Chhara who is a cultural activist from the community.
"There is no interest in the media to promote success stories but they are only looking for sensationalism. They won't take note of the fact that film makers, journalists and lawyers are coming up from this marginalized community," he added.
Dakxin put forward a very valid argument when he said that when the erstwhile 'criminal' tribes were denotified in 1952, they continued to be branded as criminals and were compelled to resort to their traditional professions. If that is the case it is the successive governments that are responsible for failing to bring them into the mainstream even after seven decades.
"Anandiben Patel as the chief minister had ordered a survey of the women in Chharanagar with a view to rehabilitate them. Nobody knows anything about the data that was collected and what came out of it. The focus has to be on an exclusive welfare policy for such marginalized sections of the society. Ways have to be found to bring them up the socioeconomic ladder," he elaborated.
Coming back to the Botad tragedy there is a lot of resentment over the authorities reportedly not even referring to the material consumed by the victims as hooch. Instead it is being referred to as a 'chemical'.
The tragedy has provided fodder to the opposition Congress and the rookie Aam Aadmi Party to attack the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state. AAP national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal even met the survivors being treated at a hospital in Bhavnagar recently.
During another visit to Saurashtra on Monday, he asked the electorate to vote for AAP in the coming assembly polls if they wanted schools, hospitals and jobs instead of liquor.