Hooch tragedies: women suffer most

The hooch tragedy toll exceeded a hundred in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, blurted out a front page news story a few weeks back, there were a few follow up stories here and there and then it disappeared from public memory. Only to be revived by a hooch tragedy of a greater magnitude in terms of deaths – 158 – in Assam. This, too, will be forgotten. But what happens to those families struck with such calamities? How do they pick up the threads of their lives?

A non-descript village in UP is now being called ‘widow village’, in which almost 150 families out of 300, have widows in the age group of 25-65 years, whose husbands fell prey to spurious liquor in the past 15 years. Some of the families have lost more than one male member.

In a country where women are at the receiving end in many spheres of life, they are also found to be the worst sufferers due to men’s drinking habits — whether it is a husband, son or father. It is not uncommon that a married woman is often subjected to her drunken husband’s physical, mental and sexual torture. Unfortunately, her stereotyped grooming doesn’t let her realise that it is a crime against her. And society, too, overlooks such abuses.

Further, the family experiences hardship when money is squandered for buying drinks and, in a dire situation, when the man of the house falls victim to a ‘poisonous brew’, the woman is left to struggle for the survival of the family. In many villages in UP, reportedly, women were compelled to join the same illicit liquor trade to earn a living, succumbing to the pressure of the liquor mafia. Government relief in the form of one-time ex-gratia grants offers no long-term solution to the victim families.    

The rise of illicit liquor trade in India is perhaps the result of following a dual policy. Our Constitution posits total prohibition as a directive principle, while under the distribution of powers, the subject is placed in the state list, which has left the states free to frame their own policies. So far, only Bihar, Gujarat, Nagaland, partially in Manipur and the union territory of Lakshadweep have adopted prohibition, while some other states have rolled it back.

But the question remains, how sincerely do these states implement the policy of prohibition. In the latest mishap in UP and Uttarakhand, it was suspected that the hooch was smuggled in from neighbouring Bihar, a state under prohibition.

The latest AIIMS has found that about 16 crore people (10-75 years) are alcohol consumers, and it is 17 times higher among men than women. The consumption pattern in India shows that 30% consume country liquor or ‘desi’ and another 30% spirits or foreign liquor. Every third alcohol consumer in India needs help for alcohol-related problems. India, however, doesn’t have any policy against alcohol consumption and alcohol packs do not bear any health warning.

Poor rate of conviction

Sadly, bootlegging continues unabated in the country in the absence of any uniform deterrent measure. Gujarat is the only state which has imposed death penalty on hooch-makers and vendors for causing death to consumers. Uttar Pradesh is now deliberating making it an offence under the National Security Act.

The recurring tragedies, affecting mostly the poor and the under-privileged like the daily wage earners, agricultural and industrial workers, so far only evoked predictable political and bureaucratic reactions without any concrete follow-up actions either for the economic rehabilitation of the aggrieved families or any serious crackdown on the bootlegging mafia.

The findings of the Mehta Commission in Gujarat, constituted in the wake of the 2009 Ahmedabad tragedy which resulted in over 140 deaths, revealed the extremely poor rate of conviction of bootleggers and also the failure of the police to monitor their nefarious activities despite having the relevant information.

The ‘Global Burden of Disease’ report on alcohol use and health effects, carried out in 195 countries from 1990 to 2016, identified alcohol as the cause of death of one in ten in the 15-49 age group — or about 2.8 million deaths globally per year, making it the seventh leading risk factor for premature death and disability.

The World Health Organisation global status report on alcohol and health, 2018, found that in India, per capita alcohol consumption more than doubled between 2005 and 2016. Result: the annual costs of alcohol consumption in terms of healthcare spend, productivity loss, crime and law enforcement and road accidents in India in 2013-14 was $31.4 billion, roughly 2.26% of the GDP that year.

Now, the use of alcohol, apart from being a health and economic issue, has a huge socio-psychological dimension, which exposes women in a poor household, in particular, to further vulnerabilities and exploitation and also has a disempowering effect on them. Isn’t it high time now that we looked at the issue holistically?

(The writer is former Indian Information Officer and media educationist)

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Hooch tragedies: women suffer most

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