Analysis: India’s free election booze kills imbibers

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br Elections~6 Associated Press An Indian woman carries her child while casting her vote on the final day of polling in Kamalgaji, on the outskirts of Kolkata, India, yesterday. Photo: AP

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.

“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 labourer 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 is campaigning to stop politicians from handing out liquor and drugs to win votes in the state, which tops India in opium and heroin consumption and comes second in alcohol sales.

Punjab epitomises how Indian politicians are worsening substance abuse that is destroying families, even as they promise to open more drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres.

“It’s out of control,” Ranvinder Singh Sandhu, the emeritus professor of sociology at Punjabi University in Patiala, said, 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.”

Yesterday was the last of nine rounds of voting in India’s election, with results due on May 16. Most opinion polls predict Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 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 neighbourhood 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.

“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.

Two days later in a working-class neighbourhood nearby, half a dozen men stood after 9pm beside a flatbed mini-truck at an intersection. Men from the neighbourhood would walk up to the group and chat, and leave with one or two bottles of a local brand of whisky each.

“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 whisky he said was given to him by campaigners. “But when I go into the booth tomorrow, I can vote for anyone I like.”

The 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 centres and new hospitals.

More alcohol and drugs were confiscated in Punjab during election season than any other state, while Andhra Pradesh led in cash seizures, PK Dash, a director-general at the Election Commission of India, said. Total distribution of alcohol, drugs and cash for votes was “much higher” during this campaign than in 2009, he said.. – Bloomberg


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