Towards gender and socially just alcohol policy in India

To: The Health, Rights, Media Network with The Communication Initiative

From Ranjani K. Murthy - researcher and policy advocacy person around gender, poverty, health and emergencies on gender and alcohol policy.

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Towards gender and socially just alcohol policy in India

The other day, I was asked a question: “These days women in the corporate sector and elite colleges in Chennai, India want to visit pubs and drink just like men. Advertisements on liquor are targeting Indian women as much as men, what do you think?” This was in a context where the right-wing was against women’s consumption of alcohol stating that ancient Hindu scriptures do not permit women to drink (in fact Manu Smriti licensed men to remarry if their wives drank!). In fact a few years back the right-wing raided pubs in a southern state and molested a few women.

At the same time, the World Bank observes that 81% of India lives on under $2.50 a day -what is necessary for a decent standard of living? When I visit village or slums in states (same as provinces) of India where prohibition has not been imposed (majority of states) the main demand from poor, Dalit, and Adivasi women is prohibition. They complain that between half and a majority of men drink regularly (contrary to WHO statistics, 2010 which states 25% of Indian men are ever consumers of alcohol) and eat into men’s earnings and part of their own earnings. The wellbeing of family members suffers, apart from the health of the men involved. Expenses on health increase. Domestic violence against women is higher in households were men drink than households where men do not drink. Yes, some women from poor households do drink, but it is around 5-10% of women in non-tribal households, and a slightly higher among tribal households. At the same time, de-addiction services are more accessible to men than women, and rich/middle class than poor. It is not only costs, but space to come out on their own and admit addiction that is a constraint for women to access de-addiction services. Women-only de-addiction services are rare. To add to the complexity, a few women are engaged in brewing and selling alcohol illegally.

It is in this context that one needs to ask: what is a feminist perspective on alcohol policy and gender and alcohol consumption? It is possible to distinguish between these three strands:

1) Liberal strand: It is the choice of individual woman. If men have the right to drink, women should also have the same right. Stigma should be removed.
2) Marxist strand: The alcohol industry and the state represent capitalist interest and are now targeting women as consumers through advertisements to expand the market. State-run liquor shops, like in some states of India, represent this close nexus between corporate and private interests.
3) Socialist feminist strand: It is not only capitalism, but patriarchy, as well, which benefit from the alcohol industry. Men consume alcohol and get away with physical, sexual, and mental violence in particular against their wives, and next they state that that was not “them”. Money from poor men and women (from whom the men take money) is being used by state governments through taxes on sale of liquor. This revenue, at times constituting 25% of state revenues, is used to provide doles in the form of subsidised food, vegetables, etc. The socialist feminist strand holds that as long as 81% of India is living on under $2.50 per day and patriarchy persists, prohibition is a must. The poor employed in this industry may be provided with alternative employment.

It is the socialist feminist strand that I uphold. As a woman’s groups from a slum stated, "We want to move out of poverty, and we do not want a life of violence at home or outside. Prohibition is a must. Government subsidies can come later. The government is just keeping us just alive and squeezing money out of us through taxes out of alcohol sale."

Ranjani K. Murthy