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Punjab's Women Lead Fight Against Alcohol Abuse


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Punjab's Women Lead Fight Against Alcohol Abuse


Just off the main highway that slices through Badrukha village is Rajender Singh's liquor shop. At noon, business is already good. The men arrive on cycles or motorbikes, pass a handful of crumpled notes through the metal grille and head to a nearby shack where they sit and drink the potent local hooch.

The scene is repeated in almost every one of the tens of thousands of villages of the Punjab, India's north-western state. One of the richest parts of the country, the Punjab is also home to some of the worst alcoholics. According to one recent survey, nearly two-thirds of young people, mainly in rural areas, abuse alcohol or medicinal drugs.

Now, a grassroots movement is fighting back.

Invoking a little-known law from 1994 that allows local councils to impose prohibition in the areas they control if two-thirds of voters support them, dozens of Punjab villages are trying to shut down such shops.

In Badrukha, the campaign is being led by Chand Singh, the 62-year-old sarpanch, or elected leader of the village.

Chand Singh said that, pushed by the women of the community and shocked by a road accident two months ago in which one young local young man was killed and another permanently disabled, he had persuaded the rest of the council to invoke the rediscovered law.

"For these two young men it is too late. Lots of other people have died in fights, drink-driving accidents. Men are abusing their wives, their children, all because of drink," he said. "It is the women of the village who wanted this the most."

Punjab has long had a tradition of heavy drinking. A double measure in north India is known as a Patiala Peg, after a city only 40 miles from Badrukha. But alcohol consumption has gone beyond anything previously seen, say locals.

"We used to drink on festivals, or just every so often and then in the evening," said Baldev Singh, 75. "These days it is from the morning, every day and often young people too.".

In Punjab, government statistics reveal, the population of 25 million drank an average of 10 bottles of spirits each in 2010, a fifth more than the year before. The number of liquor shops has gone from less than 5,000 a decade ago to nearly 7,000 today. A bottle of heavily taxed local spirits costs between 100 rupees (£1.30) and 250 rupees. Their sale provides a huge source of revenue for the cash-strapped government.

The people of Badrukha were inspired by Changal, the neighbouring village which last year became one of the first in the state to successfully use the 1994 law to expel the alcohol vendors. The decision was not popular with the local administration, however.

Changal's sarpanch, Paranjeet Singh, said he was warned by officials first that the young people would switch to medicinal drugs, then that the village, currently without a metalled road to the highway, would lose its development grant if it imposed prohibition. Neither has occurred, he said, and instead there has been a 40% drop in violence.

Yet, bureaucrats have other weapons.

As villagers unearthed the clause allowing them to shut liquor shops, so officials dug up a sub-clause allowing them to keep them open if there was evidence of smuggling or illegal distillation nearby. Last year, according to campaigner Kamal Anand, this led to more than a third of 70 applications for prohibition in the Punjab being rejected.

In Badrukha, "beer and whisky shop" owner Rajender Singh said he had paid 21 million rupees (£300,000) for his licence and sold 200 bottles of country liquor a day and 100 of better quality spirits, making "a good profit". After council plans to shut his store emerged, police found a small stash of illicit liquor in Badrukha. As a result, officials have told the local council they may reject an application to shut down the shop.

"I'm a landowner, so I'm hardly going to starve," Rajendra Singh said. "But if it wasn't for shops like mine, the government would have no money at all."

Venu Prasad, the Punjab Commissioner of Excise, who will decide Badrukha's application, said: "All is done according to the law."

[Courtesy: The Guardian]

February 28, 2011

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