Case studies

Women crack down on liquor

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When approached by a block coordinator from PACS partner KALP, Radha Khute – a local woman from the village of Taldevri, in Chhattisgarh, central India – was only too happy to explain the problems her community faced. With KALP’s help, she developed a 55-strong women’s self-help group (SHG) to combat the production of bootleg liquor in the village, and the women have gone on to monitor access to government schemes such as MGNEGRA and midday meals, becoming a local force to be reckoned with.

Radha (third from left) and the women of Taldevri patrol the village.

Tackling illegal liquor manufacturing

When Motilal Jhalaria, Block Coordinator for Kalp Samaj Sevi Sanstha (Kalp), a PACS partner, first came to the village of Taldevri, in Bhamnidh block of Janjgir-Champa district in Chhattisgarh, central India, he was at a loss as to how to encourage local women to collaborate and assert their rights. He explains:

‘In 2012, on my first day in the village, I did not know who to meet and how to get the women of the village together. There seemed to be little understanding about forming Swasahayata Samoohs (self- help groups), nor was there much interest to do so.

‘I did not know who to approach to put forward our concept of forming women’s SHGs as a first step towards their emancipation. Interacting with the villagers, however, I knew that they were fed up of bootleg liquor and gambling in the village. In fact, I was advised to leave the village after 5pm to ensure my safety. A big problem was the fact that many men in the village manufactured their own liquor. This inevitably led to incidents of violence in the village as well as domestic violence in many homes; the violence was not only directed against spouses but also children and the elderly in the house, which was a serious cause of concern. 

During Motilal’s interaction in the village, someone suggested he meet with Radha Khute, to discuss the PACS programme. ‘Her house is just off the main road that slices through Taldevri village, so I made it a point to meet her’, he says. ‘She was excited to meet me and when I told her about the PACS programme, she told me in detail about problems that plagued her village. This meeting was the beginning of an incredible journey with Radha Khute and her band of women in the village!’

Forming a self-help group

Dressed in a simple printed yellow sari, Radha Khute, age 30, is busy making tea in her small, tidy kitchen. Radha smiles a lot while talking; it is this quality, perhaps, which disarms her opponents and enables her to persuade people to adopt her perspective.

Radha says: ‘I have studied up to class 12 and am now a home maker. When I have time away from my chores at home – and especially during the harvest season –  I like to help my husband, Dwarika Prasad, a farmer, in the fields. My three children are all in school: my daughter Sushmita, 16, studies in class 11; my sons Harish, 10 and Duti, 9 study in class 6 and class 2, respectively , while the youngest, Yash, aged 2, goes to the anganwadi centre.’

Radha (right) leads the self-help group formed by women of Taldevri village.

She continues: ‘When Kalp got in touch with me, we decided to call a meeting of all the SHGs in the village to chalk out our action plan and agenda. So I called all 12 members of my SHG, as well as other SHG members. Gauri Manhar, who is the secretary of the Indira Swasahayata Samooh SHG came with her 13 members; Gayatri Manhar of Kranti Swasahayata Samooh also came with 13 members; Rambai Khute of Vidya Swasahayata Samooh came with five members, plus Chhattisgarh Swasahayata Samooh and America Swasahayata Samooh members.’

During the meeting, Motilal and the SHG members discussed various issues. Motilal recalls: ‘The women told me “when men earn money here, they spend it on alcohol and gambling; when women earn money, they spend it on food, medicines and education for their kids and families”. So we collectively decided to form our own SHG called Dalit Sewa Sangathan, comprising 55 women members, and made eradication of the manufacturing and sale of bootleg liquor our primary issue.’ 

The women of Dalit Swasahayata Samooh appointed Radha president, Gauri as vice president and Gayatri as secretary.

Radha says: ‘The number of liquor shops had mushroomed. A bottle of heavily taxed local spirit cost between Rs. 100 ($ 2.00) and Rs. 250 ($ 3.80). The sales of this provided a huge source of revenue to the cash-strapped government. Those who could not afford this could always buy bootleg liquor.’

In one of the group’s first actions, all 55 women wrote and signed an application highlighting the damage done by liquor in the village. ‘Just to type up the application, we went to Birra, 5km away, but we wanted to do it professionally,’ says Radha. ‘The application was addressed to the chief minister (CM), district magistrate (DM), superintendent of the police (SP), the Abkari (excise) department, the local police station in Birra and the sarpanch of Taldevri. From each, we demanded a receipt as proof of our demand and our seriousness to follow through.’

In June 2013, the group went to meet with Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh at the public meeting held every Tuesday. ‘Unfortunately, it was cancelled that day so we went again the next Tuesday,’ explains Radha. ‘We spoke to the CM face-to-face; he said he would help in our effort against “the liquor mafia” in the village. He told us: “I will not be able to go to your village, but all of you have shown great courage. I will ask my office to extend all support to your work.” That was all we wanted to hear.’ 

Meanwhile the women made a banner spelling out their message. ‘All the women of our samooh gathered nearby at 1pm and we then walked the length and breadth of the village to disseminate our message about liquor consumption and manufacturing in the village,’ says Radha. ‘Our slogan was unambiguous: “you have eight days to stop making liquor!” We also informed the excise department of our campaign and told them they should raid the village after the eight days were up.’

However, the excise department, which was raiding an illegal brewery in a nearby village, went to Taldevri before the eight days were up , seizing 10 litres of illicit alcohol and arresting those manufacturing it. ‘Our women persuaded the excise staff to call off the raid so they went back but promised to be back after the eighth day,’ says Radha.

True to their word, the excise department returned after eight days – they went house- to-house but did not find much, since the men had taken the warnings seriously and had either stopped the sale and manufacture of illicit liquor or run away. During the raid, one person warned the women he would teach them a lesson, but the department personnel caught him and took him away. When the sarpanch intervened, he got an earful from the excise officials. ‘They rebuked him and said, “you don’t know how to run a village; see how the women are working!”’ reports Radha.
She explains that a few days after the raid, a woman from the SHG found liquor in a house and called the police. ‘The police raided the house and found materials used in the manufacture of liquor buried in the ground. The culprit found it hard to hide the eight sacks of mahua (seeds used to make country liquor), so in desperation, he fed the eight sacks to his buffalo to escape punishment! 

‘When the man was being taken away, he abused the women gathered there. That same night women from our village went to the police station to complain, though the police did nothing.’ 

Two days later, the women wrote an application and 28 women went to the SP’s office to demand action. The local police then swung into action and arrested the man. ‘The daroga (police station in charge) was taken aback by our display of solidarity and stuttered “why have so many of you come to lodge a complaint?”’ recalls Radha. ‘We told him it was to ensure he got all the witnesses he needed to file an official complaint!’

Motilal reveals that the SHG now works with the village women, the excise department and the police department to carry out regular raids to check illegal sale of liquor at weekly local markets. ‘This convergence happened because of the support we received from the PACS programme, which focused on inclusion, convergence between civil society and government programmes and women’s empowerment as a tool to ensure all-round development,’ he says. ‘Most of the work was done because the initiative came from local women. There wasn’t any detailed planning, but a lot of improvisation or on-the-spot action, depending on what the situation required. This is what made it so effective.’

Getting influence at the gram sabha

In 2013, Gauri explains, it was common for the gram sabha not to be held; few people knew what was going on and the sarpanch ‘did pretty much what he wanted’. One day, the women decided to attend as a group, but despite waiting for several hours, they were told the sarpanch had left to go to another town. ‘When some of us went looking for him, we found he was playing cards with others in the village,’ says Gauri. 

‘The sarpanch came running and we told him we wanted to see the panchayat’s accounts. We found, to our shock, that the sarpanch had been taking two signatures on the forms he had given some beneficiaries to fill in for widow pensions – on one form he was taking the signature of the beneficiary for the widow pension while the other was for the gram sabha meeting. Because most beneficiaries were illiterate, they just put their thumb-impressions on the blank form, effectively agreeing with whatever the gram sabha had discussed and passed!
‘When we cross-checked with the beneficiaries, they confirmed they did not know what they were putting their thumb-impressions on. We immediately told the sarpanch to stop taking signatures in duplicate; we also demanded he take all our signatures to register our attendance at the gram sabha. By then, it was already 5pm and the sarpanch told us to come later to check the accounts. When we went to him the next day, he told us all the papers had been stolen from the panchayat office, so there was no record of either the gram sabha being held, nor any record of accounts!’

Monitoring MGNREGA

Meanwhile, Radha and the women from the SHG took on a role monitoring and implementing MGNREGA activities in the village. (The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) guarantees rural households 100 days of paid work every year doing unskilled manual labour.)

For example, as Radha explains: ‘Many beneficiaries in our village were not being paid their wages under MGNREGA. So women from our SHG told the sarpanch that all those who worked at the site would have to be paid all their pending wages or there would be no work. We went around the village and asked everyone to cooperate in our campaign. One person told us they had submitted an application for new work in the village but we told them no-one should go to work until all wages had been paid. The sarpanch was forced to pay all pending wages after three days, after which MGNREGA work again began in the village.’

In another instance, during work on pond deepening, Radha and Gauri went to check if attendance was being marked on MGNREGA job cards and found that it was not. When questioned, the supervisor lamely told them that beneficiaries hadn’t been bringing their job cards with them when they came to work. The women demanded that he immediately mark the attendance of all those who were working at the site. 

Similarly, the SHG found that only people from the Scheduled Caste (SC) community had been employed to give out water at the worksite; Dalits and Other Backward Caste (OBC) tribe members had not been employed for this job. When the women returned the following week, Dalits and OBCs had also been employed. Gauri says: ‘It may seem trivial but it was not. The SCs were hesitant to take water from OBCs. We wanted to address this mindset.’

She adds that, on one occasion, a woman from the SHG argued with the rozgar sahayak (employment worker who implements MGNEGRA) over the quantity of work she had done, and he became abusive.

After discussions, all 55 women from the SHG went to the sarpanch and told him they wanted a woman supervisor so there was no dispute in the future. The sarpanch agreed and told Radha to fill out the necessary paperwork. When work started in March 2014, Radha joined as a supervisor. ‘She was trained by Kalp and others in the group who had similar experience,’ says Gauri. 

Today, six women from Dalit Swasahayata Samooh have been elected to the panchayat: Gauri, Radha, Bhag Bai, Manhar, Ganga and Nita. 

Midday meals and other issues

Radha explains that the women are now looking into other important issues, including roads, water logging, a boundary wall for the school and the poor attendance at the anganwadi centre. The 55 local women even attempted to take over the cooking of the midday meals at the school, which were not being cooked because of disagreements between two other SHGs. However, the sarpanch refused to formalise their rota, instructing the previous SHG to cook the meals.

Radha says that being a MGNREGA supervisor does begin and end at the worksite; people bring a variety of issues to her attention, whether or not they are related to MGNREGA. For example, she helped a man with learning disabilities to sell his land to pay for treatment, and the SHG took responsibility, collectively, for feeding him, also helping the man’s uncle by loaning him funds to pay for medical attention for his nephew.

Neighbouring groups

Following the achievements of Radha and her group carefully, the women of the nearby Sonadah village invited the SHG to come to their village to teach them how to ‘patrol’ it to keep it crime-free. The village has now adopted the same tactics with success.

Following her appointment as a MGNEGRA supervisor Radha has also been making political contacts, who she can petition for more facilities to the village. 

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