Being young and inexperienced had its advantages for me, the main one being the lack of fear of consequences. It was early 1993 and we had just started working with tribal women and forming them into collectives. One of the recurrent themes of our discussion would be the excessive alcohol consumption of the men folk. We started trying out different means of coping with this – from starting a dialogue with the men to complaining to the Excise Department. Nothing really worked and I started to feel pressurized into doing something to sustain the interest and belief amongst the women. Puttamma suggested that we focus on the people selling arrack and it sounded like a good idea. All the women agreed that their men would drink only if the arrack was easily available to them. Though there were no licensed arrack contractors legally permitted to sell in the area, they continued their trade clandestinely. Arrack would be sold to small-time retailers who set up temporary shop every evening. It would also be sold in a jeep that would travel around the tribal colonies during the evenings when people had their daily wages to spend. It was rather difficult to come to terms with the fact that the Government could not think of providing health or education on wheels to the tribals living in these remote areas, but entrepreneurs had found a way of selling alcohol in mobile units.
We decided that enough was enough and started implementing Puttamma’s suggestion. Each evening, I would go with a handful of women and try talking these retailers out of selling the arrack. We started doing everything we could do – cajoling them, coercing them, driving the fear of the law, etc. But nothing really worked. We were becoming desperate and were at our wits’ end. The women were now mocked at within their own colonies and our collective credibility was at stake. I had to do something desperate to ensure that the problem would be addressed visibly and the women would feel a sense of victory. The complaints to the police and the excise department only meant creating more opportunities for them to get larger mamools. It was then that we decided to take the law into our own hands and prevent the retailers from selling their stuff. We upped the ante in our evening visits and started to become aggressive and would forcibly destroy all the arrack in the temporary outlets. We knew that the retailer could not seek the recourse of law as he himself was indulging in an illegal activity. Not having the license to sell meant that he could not officially complain. This seemed to work and we did this for the next 10-12 days. The 3 local outlets shut down, as they could not sustain their losses and sales stopped. We felt elated. The women were happy, as their men now had no access to cheap alcohol. To me, the end somehow justified the means and I was also carried away with our success.
A few days later, I was sitting alone and working in our tribal school. One of the rooms (presently the office of the Teacher’s Training College) served as my office and I could see the playgrounds and the entrance to our school from the window. All of a sudden, a fleet of vehicles came zooming in. In true Bollywood style, young men got out of the vehicles hastily and barged into the school. One of them angrily shouted asking for me and I came out to understand what they were angry about. The leader of the group seemed to be in his early 30s and introduced himself as the excise contractor who had the rights to sell alcohol through licensed outlets in the taluk. He wanted to know what right did I have to prevent his men from selling arrack in the tribal colonies. My explanation that he had no business selling them in the first place through unlicensed outlets seemed to fall on deaf ears. The arguments were turning hot and he was getting increasingly agitated. He looked at me sternly and yelled, “Try not to become the Gandhi of this area. Remember that this is a nation that killed him too. You are no real match for us. If you really want to stop the menace of alcoholism, try and convince your tribals to stop drinking. Why are you trying to stop me from selling it? If you are true leader of these tribals, should you not be able to do this?” With this warning, he and his gang of men left.
I was both rattled and elated at the same time. Rattled by the threats that were leveled at me, and elated that I was someone ‘big’ enough to be given a death threat. After the dust had settled down, I started to think and process what he had told me. Being a passionate crusader meant exposing myself to the possibility of being easily neutralized. It would not take long for such evil elements to take me out. All that I would achieve was a couple of minutes of glory, but would easily lose the battle that I was waging. Leadership had to mean that I stayed alive to continue fighting my battles. I could never do this alone and had to build coalitions and learn to work with other like-minded partners.
I also understood the issues of ‘supply’ and ‘demand’. In his own angry way, the contractor had taught me a basic lesson in market economics. If I could successfully wean the tribals away from alcohol by bringing about the necessary behaviour change in them, the demand would just dry away. The supply would then have to shut down, as the market forces would no longer be attractive enough. This seemed to be a more permanent solution and something that I could try. I must confess though that this did not work. We could never really bring about this change in our tribal men and today alcohol sales continue as briskly as ever.