Wives Revolt as India Election Booze Leaves Trail of Widows

When Rajju Lal found her husband stumbling around in a drunken stupor on voting day in their Indian village five years ago, she corralled him at home and let him sleep it off on the floor. He never woke up.

Shortly after he died, she discovered a stash in the house of more than 20 bottles of whiskey and local spirits that he’d hoarded after receiving them from political parties seeking votes in their village in the northern state of Punjab. Since then she’s struggled to put her three children through school on her maid’s salary, and recently moved in with her relatives because she couldn’t afford to fix her crumbling brick house that was on the verge of collapse.

“With my salary I’m barely able to provide food for my children,” Lal, 34, said by phone from her home in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, adding that her husband normally couldn’t afford to buy alcohol on his wages as a day laborer hauling sacks of rice. “For a woman to lose her husband is the worst thing possible. And it’s not just about the income -- everyone in society looks at you in a very bad way after that.”

Lal now features in a video message by a Punjabi women’s group that’s campaigning to stop politicians from handing out liquor and drugs in the state, which tops India in opium and heroin consumption and comes second in alcohol sales. Punjab is an example of how Indian politicians are worsening substance abuse that is destroying families, even as they promise to open more drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers.

‘Out of Control’

“It’s out of control,” Ranvinder Singh Sandhu, emeritus professor of sociology at Punjabi University in Patiala, said by phone, referring to substance abuse in the state. “In Punjab, taking a lot of alcohol is not seen as a bad thing -- it’s simply a male characteristic. During the election period people get liquor for free, and that turns light drinkers into alcoholics.”

Today is the last of nine rounds of voting in India’s election, with exit polls released tonight and results on May 16. Most opinion polls predict Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party will win the largest number of seats while falling short of a majority, with the ruling Congress party’s popularity eroded by inflation, a slowing economy and corruption scandals.

Anita Sharma, 42, started the Belan Brigade a few months ago, named after the rolling pins used to flatten dough that members brandish during neighborhood protests against alcohol distribution in elections. The group travels to villages like the one Lal is from to encourage housewives to berate men who accept booze and demonstrate against party workers who distribute it.

Wives Gather

“Don’t let your husbands vote for someone because they gave out liquor or drugs,” Sharma said on April 27 to a dozen middle-aged women gathered for a meeting in a cramped living room in Ludhiana city in Punjab. “Every one of you has to take a stand and aggressively stop this liquor distribution in your neighborhood.”

Two days later in a working-class neighborhood less than a mile from where Sharma’s group met, half a dozen men stood after 9 p.m. beside a flatbed mini-truck at a dimly lit intersection. Men from the neighborhood would walk up to the group and chat for a few minutes, and leave with one or two bottles of a local brand of whiskey.

“When the party guys give money and liquor, I’ll take it,” Jeet Kumar Deo said after he walked away from the group with a bottle of whiskey he said was given to him by campaigners. “But when I go into the booth tomorrow, I can vote for anyone I like. They have no control over that.”

Parties Deny

India’s ruling Congress party and the BJP, projected to be the two largest parties, deny handing out liquor and drugs such as heroin, and have promised to build rehabilitation centers and new hospitals.

“We won’t allow our youths to be destroyed,” Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, said during a speech in Punjab on April 25, according to Press Trust of India. “The priority of BJP government will be not to allow inflow of drugs into our territory from across the border,” he said, referring to neighboring Pakistan.

Parveen Bansal, president of the BJP’s district unit in Ludhiana, said the party hasn’t handed out any liquor. Ravneet Singh Bittu, the Congress party’s candidate in Ludhiana, also said he’s not aware of any candidate giving away booze.

Punjab Addicts

About 40 percent of Punjabis 15 to 25 years of age were addicted to some kind of narcotic, and 48 percent of farmers and laborers are addicts, according to a 2011 government report. Political parties give males liquor and drugs because they decide who their families will vote for, said Jaskirat Singh, Punjab coordinator for the Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-partisan group that monitors elections.

“The parties calculate that if they give it to 10 people, at least five will vote for them,” Singh said.

Addiction has left a trail of destruction across Punjab. Maqboolpura, a neighborhood in Amritsar, is known as the “village of widows” because thousands of men died in their 20s and 30s due to complications related to addiction, said Ajit Singh, principal of the local Citizen Forum Vidya Mandir School. About 70 percent of the students in his school have lost a parent to drug addiction, Singh said.

“Addiction to drugs is the mother of all social problems here,” Singh said by phone from the school on April 25, a week before polling day. “Every party does it during the elections - - even now there is a supply of alcohol being given out.”

Heroin Seized

All of the 145 tons of heroin seized in the country came from Punjab, while southern Andhra Pradesh led in cash seizures, P.K. Dash, a director general at the Election Commission of India in New Delhi who oversees expenditure monitoring, said by phone. Total distribution of alcohol, drugs and cash for votes was “much higher” during this campaign than in 2009, he said.

The election commission in Punjab confiscated about 700,000 liters of alcohol, 150 kilograms of heroin and 30 tons of opium poppy husk in Punjab in the two months leading to the April 29 voting day, said V.K. Singh, the state’s chief election officer. The regulator’s hotline received about 60 complaints of illegal handouts each day, he added.

“We try to break them, but they try new methods,” Singh said, referring to political parties and their tactics.

Elections typically bring a “short-term boost” in sales for alcohol companies, said Kailash Gandhi, an analyst with financial advisory firm KRG Strategy Consultants Pvt. Ltd in Mumbai. Producers of mass-market brands, such as United Spirits Ltd. and Radico Khaitan Ltd., typically see a bounce, he said.

‘Poor Man’s High’

United Spirits spokesman Prakash Mirpuri declined to comment in response to e-mailed questions. Dilip Banthiya, chief financial officer of Radico Khaitan, did not reply to an e-mail and two calls to his office.

About 31 percent of India’s alcohol market was made up of locally-produced liquor, according to a June 2013 report by boutique investment bank IndigoEdge. These spirits -- made from sugarcane, coconut, palm or cheap grains -- are often produced by small family-owned companies and can be of poor quality, leading to reports of mass poisoning, blindness and even death.

A 180-milliliter (6.1-ounce) bottle of country-made spirits typically costs 25 rupees (42 cents), and is “seen as a poor man’s high,” according to Euromonitor Plc.

No matter who comes to power after votes are counted this week, Punjabi women like Lal, who lost her husband, are left dealing with the consequences. At Sharma’s meeting of the Belan Brigade last month, housewives such as Renu Rani shared stories of alcohol and drug abuse.

“Soon there won’t be any men left to marry our daughters,” Rani, wearing a bright red-and-yellow tunic, said as she sat on a bed alongside two other women. “The men get drugs or alcohol or whatever else, but it’s us -- we’re the ones who end up crying.”

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