At the core of the women's struggles to control alcohol lies not ideological fanaticism or religious Puritanism as the recent media coverage ("High and dry" #55) charges. The women's initiatives are experiential in nature-born of personal suffering and hopelessness in a domestic and social space wrecked by alcohol abuse.
Local communities throughout Nepal have borne the brunt of the alcohol epidemic in the past decades, and began grassroots movements to defend their families and communities lives long before Maoists came onto the scene. The government and the industry either ignored or brutally suppressed the early local pleas.
Liquor barons given free reign came out with a spirited media campaign not only to defend against the Maoist women's modus operandi of burning the distilleries, but also to discredit the genuine issues brought out into the open by the present alcohol controversy. The pro-liquor media has been awash with highly questionable statistics regarding the alcohol industry's contributions to the economic health of the country. These claims range from Rs 1-10billion to the national coffers per year and the creation of anywhere from 100,000-500,000 jobs. But there is no reliable data on production, distribution and consumption of spirit in Nepal. That is one indication of the scale of corruption in what is perhaps the most corrupt industry in Nepal.
Even assuming for a moment these claims of benefit to the "economy", what about its costs to the Nepali public? While there is no doubt that alcohol generates super profits for a small group of capitalists, commission to the officials and some revenue to the government, it is the people who have to bear the brunt of this addiction trade. While there are no alcohol studies done in Nepal to quantify the social costs of liquor, most Nepalis personally know a few who have died from alcohol and homes turned into living hell because of drinking.
The medical consequences of alcohol are equally serious. Alcohol is responsible for serious heart diseases, cirrhosis of the liver and gastro-intestinal complications. Addiction leads to mental health problems of not only the adults but also arrests the mental growth potential of unborn children. Like tobacco, alcohol remains one of the major burdens on public health services around the world. For each alcohol revenue dollar the society has to pay five dollars in the way of lost worker productivity, economic ruin for families, violence against children and women, crime, and public health costs. How can the society balance these public costs against private profits for the alcohol industry? This is a political and moral question which the Nepali state has evaded for too long.
The alcohol issue is central to the class and gender concerns of Nepali women's activism. The past decade has been characterised by the proliferation of rural women's activism against alcohol at the grassroots level. These small acts of resistance and revolt have largely gone unnoticed by the Kathmandu elite. During the same period, urban feminists have devoted themselves to securing property rights for daughters through legislative reforms. But then, among other things, isn't the attempt to control the man's drinking also a desperate act of a housewife to reallocate limited family resources away from liquor to food, medicine and school fees for the children? It is unfortunate that the two currents of women's activism have not found a meeting point to assist in each others initiatives. Secondly, a lot of the urban NGO's working on violence against women and children would do well to remember that alcohol remains one of the major factors behind any violent act, so supporting the rural women's call for alcohol control would also strengthen their own cause. It is not that there is no alcohol abuse and pain in urban, middle-class homes-it is just that bourgeoisie respectability prevents acknowledging alcohol as a domestic problem and publicly acting on it. Thankfully, much of our rural peasant sisters are not crippled by such feminine pretensions.
Genderwise, alcohol is also one of the quintessential bastions of male privileges. Liquor remains a potent vehicle for the expression of machismo culture that often brings in aggression and violence in its wake. For feminists and activists who seek to reform the substance of gender relations supporting their village sisters to control alcohol makes a lot of sense.
Alcohol capital is paradoxically expropriating culture as a bulwark against the women activists. The non-commercial spirit tradition of the ethnic groups is being turned into a reactionary mass marketing Trojan Horse. If the women are wrong to ask the Matwalis to rein in their alcohol a little, how can we ask the Bahuns to do away with caste or untouchability? Similarly, the scare that alcohol control will dry out tourism is less than convincing. When ganja and hashish were made illegal to the hippies in the 1970s, some predicted the end of Nepal's budding tourism industry. Tourism has grown four-fold since.
Rather than promoting liquor as the pillar of Nepali economy alcohol and tobacco should be dealt with as necessary evils, to be consciously minimised and regulated by the state and society. While a total ban is neither feasible nor desirable, the society must reduce the production, access and consumption through proactive policy and effective administrative mechanisms. Public health, not profit should be the bottom line on this issue. In areas where some control over alcohol has been exercised either through local initiative, administrative involvement or under Maoist auspices, the social consequences have been positive. Crime rates have plummeted, violence has decreased and food has become more affordable in food-deficit districts as less foodgrain is diverted to brew houses. These experiences could be the basis for new policies.
In recent years the traditional liquor lobby-comprised of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and the liquor capitalists-has been joined by the corporate media that passes as free press. The liquor and tobacco industry use the media not only to glamourise its products and make them acceptable to younger and wider sections of society (advertisements), it is also using it now to silence the calls for reforming the harmful alcohol regime in the country (pro-industry news reports and editorials) without giving a fair hearing to the cause of women activists.
The new rules just announced by the government for alcohol control are definitely positive, but the real test will be their conscientious enforcement in the long run. After all, it is not as if the government had no inkling of the ravages of alcohol all these years. In fact the existing industrial laws classify alcohol in the same category as explosive and arms industries requiring stringent rules for their supervision and control. In a way the grassroots backlash against liquor is a simple reaction against the complete success of the liquor lobby in dismantling all state and social regulations in the production and promotion of alcohol in Nepal. Hopefully the government will maintain its commitment to regulate alcohol in the public interest and not fall prey again to the corrupting wiles of the liquor barons once the present heat is over. t
(Saugbhagya Shah is currently completing his PhD researchon state, development and social movements at Harvard University)