The entire region is slowly sinking into a slough of alcoholism. Districts that have been traditionally dry are being invaded by liquor stores as an underemployed male populace takes to drink. Even in the high Himalaya, where alcoholic beverages are customarily brewed or distilled, people are switching from local liquor and beer to rum, whisky, gin and “medicinal alcohol”. The Utturakhand region of Uttar Pradesh is one area where the hill people have been fighting alcoholism effectively. This report is by Shekhar Pathak , who teaches history at Kumaon University and edits the magazine Pahar.
The anti-alcoholism movement in Uttarakhand differs from earlier attempts to impose prohibition here or elsewhere in the Himalaya. Activists in Pithoragarh, Nainital, Chamoli or Pauri, who have watched alcoholism sap the vitality of hill society, do not have faith
in simplistic solutions. They view the problem of alcoholism as a symptom of the deeper malaise of predatory “development”, and are confronting it as such.
The major demand of the anti-alcoholism movement has been “nashe nahin rozgar do”, or employment instead of liquor. Ranged against the movement are the economic and political interests that buttress the liquor trade.
Prior to the period of British rule in India, use of alcohol was restricted to the Tarai and the Bhotiya traders of the upper valleys, who distilled liqour for self-consumption. In the mid-1800s, colonial officials were surprised to find the settled hill communities virtually alcohol-free. Under colonial auspices, consumption of liquor began to spread with the paraphernalia of the Raj: soldiers, bureaucrats and the establishment of ”hill stations”. Soldiers were recruited into the Gorkha Rifles as early as 1858 and records show a parallel increase in liquor revenue collected in Kumaon.
Dry and Wet
By the turn of the century, alcohol was flowing freely in the hill districts of U.P. Despite several attempts at prohibition, they invariably slipped back into ”wet” status. During the Second World War, recruiting agents arrived with crates of liquor as inducement. Liquor stalls were opened at fairs.
In 1962, Sohanlal Bhubhiksuk, a follower of Vinoba Bhave, started a “postcard movement” against the government’s liquor policy and went on a hunger strike in Lucknow. In 1965, in Silyara, the Sarvodaya couple Sunderlai and Vimla Bahuguna started a campaign which soon engulfed large areas of Tehri District. In 1970, Tehri and Pauri were declared dry. However, the move was overturned by the Allahabad High Court following a petition by wine merchants.
The major weakness of that movement was the fragmented perceptions of its leaders, who treated alcoholism essentially as a moral issue. No attempt was made to link the liqour trade to the underlying economic and political questions. In the event, the movement faltered. Within years, the distillation of country liquor became Uttarakhand’s major ”cottage industry”. One such ”industrialist” was decorated with a Padma Shri.
The alcoholism trade, properly called, also includes a wide range of “tonics”, manufactured in cities like Amritsar, Moradabad, Bareilly, Pilibhit, Kanpur and Patna and trucked to the hill towns. These drinks are distributed in the remotest corners of Uttarakhand and there is a flourishing trade in empty bottles. Mrit Sanjiwini Sura, a tonic, claims 35 per cent alcohol content and Podin Hara 78.8 per cent. Both are produced by Dabur. The actual alcohol content of many tonics exceed 80 per cent and they sell too well to be for medicinal uses. A single shop in Dwarahat sells IRs.3000 of ”Ashoka” bottles daily. Despite token gestures at regulation, the authorities have not been serious about fighting alcohol abuse.
As with forestry, big dams and mining, the alcohol trade is not an isolated issue but is intimately tied to the social and cultural disintegration of hill society. The issues which underlay the decade-old Chipko Andolan metamorphosed into opposition to liquor. The current anti-alcoholism movement actually began on 1 February 1984 in Chaukhutia, western Almora, which was a thriving centre for illicit trade in alcohol.
Liquor shops were surrounded and officials gheraoed. Activists fanned out into villages and demonstrations were held all over Almora. A bandh organized on 26 March the same year was effective throughout Kumaon. Four well-known liquor contractors were apprehended at Garampani on the Nainital-Almora road and pledged never to sell liquor again. Women led a large demonstration outside the district office at Almora, a scene reminiscent of the oppositon to the timber auctions during the heyday of the Chipko movement.
Those were the hectic days of spring 1984. The following year, the contractor system was terminated in Almora District and a co-operative society began the work of distributing liquor to permit holders. Demonstrations, foot-marches and signature campaigns against nasha continue, however, because much remains to be done.
The activists’ aim is to declare the entire hill area dry. Where liquor sale cannot be avoided, they want it carried out by a government agency. All medicinal syrups with alcohol content exceeding 10 per cent must be banned and genuine syrups be distributed only at government hospitals. A viable cottage industry must be established so that it will replace the alcohol trade.
The major demand has been for employment in place of alcohol. However, prohibition in and by itself is not enough to eradicate the social evil, and must be regarded only as a first step in a more fundamental restructuring of hill society.