Society

Tiruvallur Village’s Women Fight to Keep Liquor Shops Out

They think it is difficult to keep their men from drinking. At the same time, they don’t think the shops should be banned, only that they should be moved away.

The protesting women of Vengal. Credit: G. Rajaram

The protesting women of Vengal. Credit: G. Rajaram

Vengal, Tiruvallur: Only 60 km from the bustle of Chennai, Vengal bears no semblance of urbanisation. The sleepy, tiny hamlet houses about 6,000 people – most of them Dalits and most of them still living in huts flanking mud roads. On a particularly hot day, a handful of women are sitting under a neem tree, as they always are after busy mornings. But this time their small talk is about a serious issue that threatens to disrupt the harmony of their village.

The Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) set up two liquor shops close to the village’s centre on June 3. The women fear that this will fuel a ruckus. “Only after two buildings were constructed did we realise they have been built to house TASMAC shops,” says Deepa, a resident. “To have a TASMAC shop in our midst is definitely a problem. Imagine having two. These shops should be built at the outskirts.”

Nagarani, a middle-aged woman who earns her livelihood by collecting twigs, says life has become more difficult since the shops were opened. “Men drink there, sit in front of shops and pass lewd comments at women passing by. It is not easy for us any longer collect twigs.”

Many feel the TASMAC shops in the midst of their neighbourhood have made regular drunkards of many men. “When it was in the outskirts, men used to visit only during weekends,” Nagarani says. “Now they have started drinking every day” – often in the morning as well. “The other day, we caught a boy studying in class VI drinking. I am really worried for my son.”

They think it is difficult to keep their men from drinking. At the same time, they don’t think the shops should be banned, only that they should be moved away.

Why? For one, the women feel a TASMAC in their neighbourhood is an intrusion of their privacy. For example, only 30% of the village’s houses have toilets, so many women have to walk a couple of kilometres in the mornings and evenings to answer nature’s call. “If there is a TASMAC shop on the way, how would I feel confident enough to walk down the street?” asks Deepa.

The consensus is that the shops were moved into the village from the outskirts after the Supreme Court banned liquor shops along highways. So for over a week since, the women knocked at every government official’s door they could to have the shops moved away from their houses. “From politicians to officials, we were meeting everyone. But all our attempts were stonewalled,” according to Deepa and Nagarani.

It was then that they decided to take the law into their hands. Over the last week, as soon as the shops (located next to each other) would open at 12 pm, 10-15 women would gather outside in a crowd and force them to close. “It has been paying off,” says Shyla, whose house is right next door. “We have forced them to close the shops. This happens every day but we are not tired.”

P. Santharaj, a native of Vengal who now works in Chennai at a software company, has been helping the women with their anti-TASMAC campaign. According to him, the villagers who have “taken licences to run bars” have been trying to resist this opposition. “Sometimes they give free drinks to some men and ask them to silence ‘their’ women. Sometimes they threaten the women with dire consequences. But our women have not been cowed down by anything.”

Almost all men this reporter met refused to speak. The few that did echoed Santharaj’s views: that the shops should be taken to Vengal’s outskirts. The licensors could not be contacted for comment.

For the women, it is a fight against a menace that doesn’t only threaten Vengal’s peace but also their sisterhood. “From taking toilet trips to collecting twigs, we go in groups. That is the time we unwind, after finishing up all the household chores. It is a menace to our men, yes, but it is a menace to our women, too” says a wary Deepa.

What would you do if they somehow resisted all attempts and open the TASMAC shops, I ask them; after all, they are fighting against an establishment. After a long pause, Shyla says, “We will have to just continue this fight. These TASMAC shops will destroy the fabric of our village. We never want that to happen.”

Dharshini Ramanaa is a student of journalism interested in human rights issues.