India's northern state of Bihar recently imposed a complete ban on alcohol in the state, driven largely by women's rights groups. The prohibition is now blamed for a dozen recent deaths from bad booze.
BIHAR — At a hospital in Bihar's Gopalganj district, Ramesh Yadav is sobbing: Doctors have just informed him that his younger brother Sunil is dead.
The death of the 27 year old marks the 18th death registered in this hospital in the past 24 hours, all from illegal liquor.
Yadev recounts later that he'd found his brother lying on the road, vomiting and complaining of a severe headache. "He said he couldn't see anything," he said. "I asked him what happened and whether he had had a drink and he said yes. I don't understand where he got the liquor."
The sale and consumption of alcohol has been banned in the state of Bihar since earlier this year. The ruling coalition in the state imposed the prohibition earlier this year as a fulfillment of a promise they had made to the electorate.
"I think ultimately, in a democracy, public policy must in some way reflect what the public itself is asking for," says Bihar resident Verma. "In Bihar at least, the demand for total prohibition came in an overwhelming and un-ambivalent manner from the people themselves."
In rural parts of India, such as Bihar, alcoholism is often seen as linked to domestic violence. Mala, 35, had this experience growing up. "My father never considered my mother even a human being," Mala recalls. "Once he got drunk he would become so violent that he wouldn't even spare the children. He would go totally out of mind." She says that he'd also spend the family money on liquor that sometimes left them without food. "Finally my sister and I had to give up school and start earning money."
After experiences and stories like this, many women in Bihar welcomed the ban, while several other state governments also announced their intention to follow suit.
But the recent string of deaths linked to illegally produced liquor has sparked a debate about the efficacy of prohibition. A 2014 World Health Organization (WHO) report argued that measures like prohibition create risk to consumers — and allow black markets to flourish.
"The experience of every country that has tried this for the same reasons is that the liquor drinking has not gone down among the poor, the quality of liquor has become much worse, the deaths have risen dramatically," says Prem Shankar Jha, a journalist who has researched the issue. "There is money being made on liquor, so liquor drinking will not stop just as sex will not stop, but the money then goes to criminal elements."
Writer Aditi Mittal says the government is using women's safety as an excuse to curb people's right to choice. She argues that it is misogyny and not alcohol that causes domestic violence. "Alcohol is an excuse for violence; it is not the reason for violence."
Mittal continues: "When women ask for something like prohibition they are asking for more rights over the family's income, they are asking for more control over what happens with their own lives and that is not entirely done by (bannining) alcohol. That is done by a systemic cultural change in the way we think."
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Indian women campaigning for prohibition — Photo: Bismillah Geelani
"We want more respect. We need a more sensitive society and we want more sensitive police," urged Mittal.
Prohibition in Bihar is also facing strong resistance because of the way it is implemented, including measures of so-called "collective guilt," where if one person violates the law their entire family will also be punished.
Now even those who campaigned for the ban, women like Mala, are turning against it.
"We used to complain about it, but now we will be held guilty because of it. In a way this law is being used against us because if my husband commits a crime I am also going to suffer," she says. "It is our struggle, our movement that led to this ban, but now we feel we are being victimized by it."
The Bihar government remains resolute in the face of criticism of the ban, but some members of the ruling coalition have indicated their willingness to reconsider the concept of collective guilt.