“My father ruined our lives. He would start drinking early in the morning and by the evening he would be so drunk that he would beat the hell out of us…before his death, half of his body was paralysed…he would defecate anywhere in the house…my mother would have to clean,” said Heeramma, a resident of Nagarhal village of Karnataka’s Raichur district.
The 23-year-old, whose father died of liver damage in 2019, is among thousands of women across Karnataka who have been demanding a complete ban on alcohol in the states on the lines of Bihar, Gujarat, Mizoram and Nagaland. But “no one is listening to us”, said Heeramma. “I am afraid that my husband or children could be addicted to alcohol in future.”
Ahead of the 2018 assembly elections, a 71-day agitation across 22 districts demanded that political parties include four major demands around the issue of alcohol abuse in poll manifestoes. This came two years after women from rural parts of Karnataka came together to demand prohibition under the state-wide Madya Nisheda Andolan, which is supported by at least 30 women rights organisations.
However, the issue did not make it to the political campaign of any party either in 2018 or in this election.
This, in a state which has more women voters than men in at least 112 assembly segments, and despite the Congress and BJP wooing the constituency through .
According to the fifth national family health survey, about 23.1 percent men in the state consume alcohol – higher than the national average of 22 percent. Only 0.3 percent of the women population in the state consumes alcohol, which is less than the national average of 1 percent.
Karnataka also records the highest number of incidents of domestic violence against women, followed by Bihar, Telangana, Manipur and Tamil Nadu, according to NFHS-5. In 80 percent of these cases, the perpetrator is the husband.
‘No party ready to listen’
In Tumbalgaddi and Nagarhal villages in Raichur district, Newslaundry found six widows who lost their husbands to alcohol addiction – they are now doing odd jobs to pay back the amount borrowed by the men.
“My husband worked as an agricultural laborer in the city…but after he got addicted to alcohol, he stopped working and asked us for money. When we were unable to give him money, he would beat us. He also sold our house to buy alcohol. He left us with a debt of Rs 2 lakh. Now we are working day and night to repay it,” said 42-year-old Akkamma, who borrowed Rs 30,000 to set up a paan stall after her husband’s death four years ago.
“For the last seven years, I have participated in each protest but no political party is ready to listen to us. It makes me so angry. Why are they not concerned about improving the lives of women? What can we even expect from politicians who distribute alcohol to win elections to come to power?”
It’s not just financial distress. Alcohol abuse has also broken many families.
For the last six years, 35-year-old Gangamma has been living at her sister's place in Ramapur village. “After beating me every night, my husband would lock me out of the house. One day he also tried to kill me by strangling my neck. I got so scared that I moved in with my sister. I am safe here but what kind of married life are we leading?”
In Nagarhal village, 40-year-old Gangamma Nagrar lost her son-in-law to an accident following drunk driving a year ago. “I got my daughter married when she was in class 8. But after her marriage, my son-in-law got addicted to alcohol. Now, she is a widow at only 16. Her whole life has been ruined. In our village we do not remarry widows, so they mostly stay inside the house. My biggest worry is who will look after her after our death.”
In the Navalkal village nearby, there are around 40 widows who lost their husbands to alcohol-related incidents under the age of 40.
Vidya Patil, an activist with Rajya Mahila Okutta, a women’s rights outfit, said, “In this village, men start drinking at 6 am. After four men died in just one month, women got so angry that they set illegal liquor cartons, which were dropped in their villages, on fire and started guarding the entrance of their village…people who were supplying illegal liquor in their village got scared of the women and stopped…now the men do not have easy access to liquor.”
The women who face abuse due to alcoholism in the family said social norms exacerbate the problem. “My nephew is in the police. Still, I can not file a complaint against my husband for beating me. Because then everyone would say that I have disrespected my husband and marriage,” said Gangamma.
Fed up with her alcoholic husband, Heeramma’s mother Sreedevi, in Nagarhal village, had decided to shift to her parents’ home. But within a couple of days, she was told to return to her husband. “Gram panchayat members and villagers organised a meeting to explain to her that if she moves out of the house, it will break her marriage,” said Heeramma.
All the women Newslaundry spoke to said a complete ban on alcohol is the only solution.
Women part of the movement demanding prohibition in Karnataka have four major demands.
They want gram sabhas to be given powers to permit liquor sale in villages – permission should be refused even if of the committee demands so, like in Haryana and Rajasthan. They want the state to take strict action for any violations under article 47 of the constitution, which talks about the duty to improve public health. It seeks new stringent laws to stop illegal liquor sales, and to improve the rehabilitation mechanism for people battling the problem.
The movement started with village-level protests demanding liquor ban. In 2016, around 40,000 women gathered near Gandhi statue in Raichur on Gandhi Jayanti. On the next Gandhi Jayanti, over 25,000 women gathered to protest over the issue.
In 2019, nearly one year after the assembly polls, thousands of women from rural parts of north Karnataka marched over 200 km to Bengaluru to demand a ban on liquor.
According to Vidya, the protesters had informed the primary political parties – BJP, Congress and JD-S – that they would vote NOTA if the demands were not considered, and that many women in Raichur district were compelled to pick the option. “In Yadlapur village of Raichur taluk, on the election day, women were not stepping out to cast their votes because political parties did not listen to them. Election commission officers came to request them to vote.”
Mokshamma, another activist part of the Rajya Mahila Okutta, said, “This agitation emerged after we found that women from almost every village faced problems due to alcoholism in their family.”
“Alcoholism is the reason behind violence against women, children dropping out of their schools, and a growing number of widows in villages. And even children are getting addicted to it.”