Women are setting the agenda for the upcoming assembly elections in Tamil Nadu as they raise a clarion call for prohibition.
E Sumathi is a frail wisp of a woman who looks as if a gust of wind would knock her down. Much more than a draught has hit her life and Sumathi carries on with her jaw set. This 30-year-old mother of three girls is a widow. Eight years ago, Sumathi fought her family to marry for love and came to Kumaran Nagar to begin life as a newlywed.
“I had a life only for two years,” she tells The Wire. “After that my husband started drinking heavily with his friends. He then began beating me every day for money. After three years of drinking, he fell, was bedridden and couldn’t work. And one day he just died,” she says, tears in her eyes.
There are 21 widows with similar tales in Kumaran Nagar, each losing a husband to alcohol. Left alone to fend for themselves and their children, the widows of Kumaran Nagar are convinced of one thing – liquor must be banned.
“Our children can live only if TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, the state liquor retailer) is closed,” insists Sumathi, adding, “My life has been ruined because of TASMAC.”
Kumaran Nagar is an illegal slum, a congested mess of tin houses along the banks of the Korai river in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. Most women living in this slum work as house maids for paltry sums of 2000 rupees a month, barely enough to make ends meet and feed the many mouths they are left with.
In Sumathi’s case, her income can barely feed her daughters, aged eight, six and five years, and her mother in law, 60-year-old Nallamma, a woman gone silent with grief. As Sumathi talks, another woman ambles closer, straining to listen. “This is kizhavi (old woman),” Sumathi introduces the old lady. “She is a widow too.”
M Bakkiyam, a 70-year-old with chronically achy feet, wants to sit before she narrates her story. “Marudai Asary died ten years ago,” she began, referring to her husband, an alcoholic. “He never worked a day in his life. Always drunk. He was bedridden for the last two-three months of his life,” she explains. Bakkiyam wades across the river every morning to clean a small shop on the opposite bank of the Korai river, simply to earn 1000 rupees a month. “What can I do?” she asks, smiling. “I have two sons but they don’t even visit anymore. I have to feed myself, don’t I?” she asks. Bakkiyam’s face turns grim when the word TASMAC is mentioned. “Those shops need to be closed down,” she says firmly.
In August 2015, anti-liquor protesters took to the streets en masse in Tamil Nadu, following the death of a protester, Sasi Perumal, who died of a heart attack while atop a pole in Kanyakumari. His death sparked large protests across the state, upping the ante for the demand for prohibition in the state. All political parties, except for the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam declared they would support prohibition. The state government would not give an inch, preferring instead to provide police protection to TASMAC stores across the state against vandalism by protesters.
“When we come to power in 2016, our first signature will be that announcing prohibition in the state,” said rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi. The Pattali Makkal Katchi, the original champion of prohibition in the state, announced the same.
The state government has no records on deaths and illnesses due to alcoholism, which is, according to critics, an ostrich syndrome of sorts. Experts though warn that the problem is severe. “Nearly 80% of those who drink are in the hazardous drinking category,” said Dr Lakshmi Vijaykumar, a mental health expert working with the World Health Organisation. “The drinking age too is reducing rapidly. Now I get patients who are alcoholics in their 40s, while earlier they used to be in their 60s,” she said.
No data means no necessity for action, at least according to the state government. Tamil Nadu Health Department officials say that no awareness drive or campaign has been conducted on the ills of alcoholism. The state exchequer depends heavily on the revenues brought in by TASMAC, which has a monopoly on the liquor retail business; one third of the revenues of the state, exceeding 30,000 crore rupees, is brought in by TASMAC. Without this income, the state economy would go into a tailspin.
The alcohol habit is not only claiming lives but also taking money away from working women trying to make up for their husbands’ expenditure on drink, in the process unleashing violence on them. Every widow The Wire spoke to in Kumaran Nagar had an eerily similar story to tell. These women were homemakers until their husbands began to drink away a large portion of the family’s income. To make up for the loss of income, the women took up odd jobs, only to be beaten at home by the alcoholic husband to hand over her earnings as well.
Over 160 kilometres away from Kumaran Nagar, in the sleepy town of Periyakulam, Theni district, a middle class residential locality protested against the local TASMAC shop in July 2014. Thirty-eight-year-old Himalini Deepa, a homemaker and a mother of two, was one of the leaders of this protest, gathering the entire neighbourhood of 1300 families living in State Bank Colony, Sundararajanagar, barely two kilometers from the residence of the state Finance Minister O Panneerselvam.
“We had petitioned the Collector a number of times asking for the TASMAC shop to be moved elsewhere,” said Deepa. “We were afraid to cross that stretch of road because drunks were always around, misbehaving with the women. We were afraid to leave our children at home alone,” she added.
It took three months of sustained protests for the residents to taste victory. “Now a supermarket has come to the area because the TASMAC is gone,” she said, adding, “We definitely need prohibition. There are no two ways about that. I will definitely vote only for a party that promises prohibition.”
Back in the Kumaran Nagar slum, dusk is setting. The widows of Kumaran Nagar watch over their children with a hawk’s eye as night approaches. It is TASMAC time after all. These widows may have been cruelly taught the consequences of alcoholism. But the other men in the slum have paid no heed.
Sandhya Ravishankar is a Chennai-based journalist. She tweets at @sandhyaravishan