Alcohol: major obstacle to development

The situation of women’s safety here in Bihar was such that women would not step outside their homes beyond 6 pm. Alcohol fueled domestic violence had been accepted inside the homes to such an extent that there had been about 85 women in the village who committed suicide seeing no escape.” Ritu Jaiswal, a local politician in Bihar explains how alcohol hinders sustainable development in Bihar, India.

Already many years before, in March 2013, Bihari women started protesting alcohol fueled harm in public. “Humari aabroo ki keemat pe sharab ka dhandha nahi chalega.” (The sale of liquor will not continue at the cost of our honour.) The chant echoed through Konar, a village near the town of Sasaram in Bihar’s Rohtas district. That day, around sixty women took to the streets to protest the rampant alcohol use among the men in the village, and the severe consequences of alcohol: violence prevailing in their homes.

Local stories of alcohol harm abound

Sanjay Kumar, who hails from Patna in Bihar and is a social activist working with the homeless population in Delhi through Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, shares that alcohol is one of the reasons for homelessness, and further added that children and women run away from home and become homeless increasingly because of alcohol fueled neglect and violence in the family. Nada India peer educator Davender Joti facilitating a self help group for homeless substance users together with Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, the citizens’ campaign to fight for the rights of the homeless people in India, shared that homelessness and substance are tightly interlinked. Another native from Bihar shared many stories as how alcohol made life miserable for many families. For example when major parts of the family income was spent on alcohol, or when husbands would also snatch money earned by women. This would affect the entire family including the children and their education. He added that poverty, illiteracy and domestic violence were some of the major results of alcohol.

Alcohol fuels homelessness in India

The Assessment of Pattern and Profile of Substance Use among Children in India conducted by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC), the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) showed that two-thirds of children left their home because of domestic violence and conflict in their family, along with other physical abuse by family members. Substance use in fathers, and alcohol attributibal violence against wifes and children were other significant risk factors for children leaving their homes and living on the streets, according to the report.

Prohibition in Bihar as reaction to the alcohol harm epidemic

In November 2015, Nitish Kumar, the newly elected chief minister promised to ban liquor before the state Assembly elections and made the announcement at an official function to mark Prohibition Day in the state capital. Three years later due to prohibition women find themselves in the position to spend their meagre income on their children’s education and health.

Reports from other states after the implementation of prohibition also showed decreased incidences of violence against women. But not all alcohol-related problems disappeared. While the overall prevalence of current alcohol use declined in states with alcohol prohibition, a substantial proportion of consumers were using alcohol in a dependent manner in Gujarat (30%), Bihar (16%), Manipur (17%) and Nagaland (20%). Compared to the national figure of 18.5% some of the prohibition states fare better but others fare worse, showing that alcohol problems, especially alcohol use disorders do not simply disappear with alcohol prohibition.

The alcohol ban in Bihar was implemented through the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act that came into effect on April 1, 2016. The Act states:

No person shall manufacture, bottle, distribute, transport, collect, store, possess, purchase, sell or consume any intoxicant or liquor.”

In my opinion, the ban on liquor as only option in different states of the country has not produced the expected results as the decision was not “participatory” enough – even though women in affected states have been mounting massive protests and impressive manifestations of their will to tackle alcohol harm; and even though some results of the alcohol ban are impressive. The calm confidence of women involving themselves directly in local administration and other public matters had been a rare sight in rural Bihar before. But women are changing this notion. Panchayat led by sensitized women could mobilize great support to prohibition in a more sustained manner in light of violence against women and children and people in general, to the effect that we may not find people consuming liquor in public spaces openly anymore if every individual is aware and able to take a stand against it and participate at local level.

Is Bihar Faring Better Or Worse After Alcohol Ban?

Local ownership of any alcohol policy essential

As Gandhi as rightly said: “In the true democracy of India, the unit is the village. Every village has to become a self sufficient republic.” Thus, Panchayats being at the grass roots are yet to collaborate with the local government. Panchayats being the first and grass root level of governance can play the most effective role in sensitization, prevention and referral of people with potential substance use disorders and thereby provide social support to growing needs and problems of today’s village in a consumerist environment where alcohol is increasingly treated as an ordinary commodity – even though all evidence shows it is not. In fact alcohol is a great obstacle to development of villages, communities, and whole societies.

Obstacle To Development

On persisting with the law, Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, had told the Bihar Assembly:

Murders are committed despite a law against it. That does not mean the law has failed. What is needed is greater social awareness.”

In this spirit, Nada India raised the issue of alcohol as a threat to women security to be included in the manifesto of major political parties in the coming Indian parliament elections-2019 at a consultation on Women Security organized by Shivi Development Society in Delhi.

Magnitude of alcohol harm

It is worrying to know that the National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India (2019) showed that alcohol is the most common psychoactive substance used by Indians. It is an alarming situation nationally, wherein about 14.6% of the population (between 10 and 75 years of age) use alcohol. In terms of absolute numbers, there are about 16 crore people who consume alcohol in the country. States with the highest prevalence of alcohol use were Chhattisgarh, Tripura, Punjab, Arunachal Pradesh and Goa – none of them states where alcohol prohibition is implemented.

India: Magnitude of Alcohol Problems

India neither has a National Alcohol Policy nor a Drug Demand Reduction Policy, though an attempt was made in the past at the central Government’s level, to draft a drug demand reduction strategy which couldn’t be tabled in the parliament. My fear is that in the absence of a National policy, the only option available for state intervention is to have prohibition and thus, India urgently needs a comprehensive alcohol control policy as well as the drug demand reduction policy.

I strongly feel that a renewed focus is needed on prevention and health promotion, which are critical to creating norms and environments in our communities and in the Panchayats that foster the highest attainable standard of physical, mental and social well-being. Dr.Monika Arora, the Director for Health Promotion at the Public Health Foundation of India reiterated the same concern that India needs a comprehensive policy to address one of the five major risk factors of non-communicable diseases and to fullfill its commitment to achieve the national target of the 10% relative reduction in alcohol use by 2025. Till now, alcohol has been regulated at the level of state governments through excise departments, but the burden of this risk factor is felt by the health, social justice and finance departments.