(c) Simon Williams / Ekta Parishad

Pleading for prohibition

India
Health

Many educated Indians at home and abroad preen themselves every time reports pour in about our dynamic, galloping economy. The World Bank, IMF and other global economic soothsayers have gone as far as saying we may even overtake China. Wow!

Mind you, we’ve spent so many decades being pitied for being ‘Third World’, with famines and disasters perennially hitting headlines, that we could be forgiven for feeling chuffed when the predictions stopped being so gloomy. Indian doctors, engineers and scientists first began to make a name for themselves in the US in the 1970s. Then the IT people descended on Silicon Valley and made it their own. What’s not to shout about?

But although concrete and glass IT hubs dominate parts of Bangalore and Hyderabad and Indian cities are growing phenomenally alongside an exploding population, there’s a feeling of unease. Its billionaires are getting richer by the dozen but for people working at the grassroots level, there’s a sense of despair. And, often, alcohol lies at the root of it.

Although concrete and glass IT hubs dominate parts of Bangalore and Hyderabad and Indian cities are growing phenomenally alongside an exploding population, there’s a feeling of unease
ACCORD, the NGO I work with, began its partnership with local indigenous or Adivasi people in the Nilgiris in 1985. Community health started in 1987 with the arrival of two newly minted doctors into the Gudalur Valley. In 1990, Dr Shyla returned from the US with another doctor, Dr Nandakumar, to start a small 25-bed hospital.

Under their watch, the differences were quickly visible. Malnutrition, diarrhoea deaths, maternal and infant mortality rates drastically improved. Our spirits rose with the encouraging medical statistics. These communities, despite poverty, had better health than the national average.

Fast-forward 27 years, and after a lifetime battling to save mothers and children, Dr Shyla sadly reports that malnutrition rates are now soaring. She believes it’s linked to depression in the mothers, caused by alcohol-related domestic violence from the men.

A day after Shyla sent an email with this bleak observation, Dr Yoginder Alagh – a nationally recognized economics expert, and formerly member of the Planning Commission of India – wrote an article confirming the rise of malnutrition in India. Apparently, the World Bank puts poverty in India at an appalling 21.2 per cent.

This problem is not confined to the Adivasis. Across the Nilgiris, many families that were once stable are disintegrating as alcohol takes over men’s lives.

Shyla is reluctant to generalize from her anecdotal observations. Nonetheless, she believes that a high-level research team would likely be able to establish a causal link between maternal depression and children’s malnutrition.

Research is necessary for academia to take grassroots-level observations seriously and affect policy makers at the national level.

But in the meantime, is it not enough to trust the gut feeling and instinctive knowledge of the practitioners on the ground? After all, they know what is happening better than a team of drop-in researchers.

And existing stats already tell us quite a lot. We know that over 40 per cent of the world’s hungry and malnourished children are Indian.

Ministers and officials in power tend to play down statistics to prove that the situation is not as grim as activists, child experts and nutritionists know it to be. But the people who care, who have no political agenda, and who see children and their mothers die in villages all over India don’t have the time to quibble over statistics or score debating points in the corridors of power.

So it’s left to the women to plead for prohibition. And they are doing so, all over India. Of course there are objections from the usual suspects: from liquor barons who laugh all the way to the banks and the brigade of freedom-to-drink citizens who – I would argue – risk putting the liberty of drinkers over that of starving children and battered wives.

Ministers and officials in power tend to play down statistics to prove that the situation is not as grim as activists, child experts and nutritionists know it to be

The arguments have been made ever since independence: Gandhi advocated prohibition. India's elites will protest that bootlegging will continue and the past has shown that prohibition doesn’t work. But Indian women have shown they are not afraid to battle the bootleggers.

Now the governments in some states run liquor shops because it brings in huge revenue. Protesting women are arrested by the police and often beaten up, as the cops are duty-bound to protect the state-owned alcohol shops.

Governments pay out far more in terms of medical expenses for the alcoholic men who end up in hospitals than for the women and children who are dying. When seen from this point of view, the argument for governments running alcohol outlets is ludicrous and irresponsible.

It’s a battle Indian women have fought for years and will continue to fight. And I for one wish them every success.

Thumbnail image: Jorge Royan

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