Sumani Jhodia is furious. She and other tribal women and men had been booked in a criminal case for opposing the liquor bhati at Kala Jeera Junction in Mandibisi. Some years back, things had been quite the reverse. She along with 7 other tribal women had been empowered by the Biju Patnaik Government to enforce prohibition in their respective districts. They had taken their task very seriously, and stepped in wherever their tribal fellows had called to stop liquor brewing. Now, his son had turned the tables on her! The policy of licensed liquor breweries all over the state was causing havoc and women were up in arms everywhere, and the police had booked her in a false case, just because she had stood up for her friends in Mandibisi who were seeking to close the liquor Bhati in their Panchayat.

It had all started on 26th January 2008, when the Mandibisi Gram Panchayat passed a unanimous resolution against the continuation of the liquor Bhati in their Panchayat. Now, Mandibisi is not an unknown name. The women of this remote Panchayt in Kashipur Block had made history some years back by taking up cudgels against the forest department, and the TDCC Tribal Development Cooperative Corporation Ltd.) and forcing the government of Orissa to formulate a new minor (or non-timber) forest produce policy, recognising the rights of the Panchayat in tribal areas, and removing restrictive and monopolistic bottle-necks of the previously existing policy. The previous policy had neither allowed the tribal primary collectors to sell at the MSP, or even process any NTFP for value addition, while the business lobby reaped major benefits.

Their struggle for right to minor forest produce from 1993 to 2000, was a major victory, which had initiated similar changes in other states as well. Now they were up in arms again, as the liquor Bhati not only tempted the men folk to fritter away hard-earned savings, but also lead to frequent brawls and street fights, disturbing the peace of their idyllic Panchayat. Even as the entire Panchayat joined hands with the women, against this disturbing element in their midst, the Bhati owner started a war of terror against the people, and specially against the women and men leading the movement, including the Sarpanch Nandu Majhi, issuing threats, bribing and coercing people, and getting every dipsomaniac who stumbled into his shop to sign on petitions to continue the liquor shop. The police and the excise department had joined hands with him and issued several summons to the Sarpanch Nandu Majhi, as also threatened others taking leadership on the issue.

It was the Naveen Patnaik Government, which had in its very first year, reformulated the NTFP policy, and given the rights to Panchayats in tribal areas. Now, this very Government had formulated a liquor policy which resulted in opening of licensed liquor shops in all the tribal areas. This was counter to the past policies on liquor followed in tribal areas, where household liquor brewing which is a traditional part of the lifestyle of the tribal communities was allowed, this provision is actually part of the Bihar and Orissa Excise Act of 1915, and is still adhered to in the Excise Policy of the Orissa Govt.

In fact, there are two Acts, which specifically emphasise the rights of the Gram Sabha in the 5th Schedule areas to control liquor trade:

1. Bihar and Orissa Excise Act, 1915 :
The provisions of this Act for the tribal areas are also invoked in the Orissa Excise Policy, 2008-09 as follows: In section XIX, the Orissa excise policy explicitly states : “Concessions granted in tribal areas to brew liquor for personal consumption and not for sale will continue. The provisions of Section 26 - A of the Bihar and Orissa Excise Act, 1915 requiring approval of Gram Sasan in the scheduled areas may be strictly followed.”

2. The Provisions of the Panchayats, Extension to The Tribal Areas Act, (PESA) 1996 : Section 4.m. of the Act states specifically: “While endowing Panchayats in the Scheduled Areas with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government, a State Legislature shall ensure that the Panchayats at the appropriate level and the Gram Sabha are endowed specifically with-
(i) The power to enforce prohibition or to regulate or restrict the sale and consumption of any intoxicant ;

In concurrence with the PESA, the Orissa Gram Panchayats (Amendment) Act, 1997 Sect 44, (renumbered as sub-section 1.a.) also states,

Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law in the Scheduled Areas, subject to the control and supervision of the Grama Sasan, the Gram Panchayat shall exercise within its local limits, such powers and perform such function in such manner and to such extent as maybe prescribed in respect of the following matters, namely :

  • Enforcement of prohibition or regulation or restriction of the sale and consumption of any intoxicant.

So when Mandibisi Gram Panchayat passed the 26th January Gram Sabha resolution, to close the licensed liquor shop, they were taking a perfectly legal step in keeping with the Constitutional Sanctions for self-rule in tribal areas. Their elation at being able to prohibit liquor in their Panchayat was short lived, however as the administration took little notice of their Republic Day resolution. Despite Sarpanch Nandu Majhis repeated petitions, there was little response from the district administration. Then in November, 2008, the District Administration issued a routine notice to all Panchayats seeking objections if any to the liquor breweries in the different Panchayats. Failure of registration of complaints within 30 days of issuance of the letter, would lead to the breweries continuing as before the notice said. The Secretary, Mandibisi Panchayat suppressed the letter initially, then panicking at what might happen if his perfidy was discovered, disclosed the contents to Nandu Majhi. In a short while, a Gram Sabha was organised, and women and men came together once again to pass a resolution for closure of the liquor Bhati. Leaders of the Panchayat, then went to meet the District Collector, handed him the resolution, and requested him once again to close the bhati. The District Collector assured them that as the Bhati license expired with the end of the current financial year, the bhati would be closed from 1st April 2009. 1st April passed, 1st May passed, but the Bhati continued, full steam. In the meanwhile, drunken brawls, and fights increased, the bhati manager used these as an opportunity and filed complaints against the leaders. Cases were registered against several women and men, including Nandu Majhi. The people appealed to Sumani Jhodia, who was seen as a natural leader in Kashipur Block, and she lead a delegation to meet the SP, and complain about police harassment. The SP assured them that he would look into the issue. The status quo continued for somedays.

Then Phulsingh from Mandibisi village was arrested, and taken to police custody. Sumani immediately contacted the SP and demanded an explanation, and under the SPs intervention, Phulsingh was released. However, the infuriated people in Mandibisi had by then demolished the Bhati completely. The IIC, Kashipur Police Station took this as a personal affront, and went around Mandibisi openly abusing the SP, the Bhati Manager filed FIRs and cases were registered against several more people, including Sumani Jhodia. People in Mandibisi went into hiding, as the Police went on night raids to arrest those named in the cases, and gave a free hand to the Bhati Manager. The owner of the Bhati, immediately provided all resources to the Manager, and re-building of the bhati began within a few days.

Within a month of this event, the Bhati re-construction had been completed, and liquor trade resumed as before. With much hesitation people returned to their homes. Nandu, and the women leaders of Mandibisi however, were not to be subdued. On July 6th, they organised another representation to the Rayagada District Collector, and decided that this time, they would sit outside the DCs office till they got the order for closure of the liquor shop.

The Collector first tried to evade the issue by saying that the Gram Sabha has not been conducted with due procedure, and that the bhati could not be closed as it was providing revenue which ran their schools, and provided roads. He advised the women to go back, and stop the men from drinking, instead of fighting against the licensed bhati. The women and Nandu told the District Collector, that they would not leave till the Bhati was closed, and demanded a written order to the effect. The stand-off continued late into the evening.

Then, the delegations was asked to come the next day, and they were given a copy of an order for temporary closure of the Bhati, in view of the Dharna outside the Collectors Office and to maintain the peace in Mandibisi Panchayat. The people had to be satisfied with this.

In the meanwhile, the Liquor Brewery in the neighbouring Panchayat of Kashipur who have the habit of chasing and harassing anybody seen carrying a bottle or a can in the evening hours, chased a terrified tribal boy into a dry well near Sumanis village. The boy broke his hips, and was referred to the Koraput District hospital. The Doctors in Koraput District Hopsital also expressed helplessness, and suggested he be taken to Vishakapatnam for treatment. The boys family is helpless, as they do not have the resources for this. Sumani and other women from Kashipur have registered an FIR against the bhati manager.

In different districts of Orissa, Malkangiri, Koraput, Sambalpur, the Maoists have declared war against liquor shops, and have gone to the extent of killing some bhati owners, while forcing the closure of many others. The state has been helpless in the face of this righteous violence, the police too frightened to even move around in uniforms in these places. In Mandibisi, it is just the Sarpanch, and the people of the Panchayat, who are protesting against the illegal liquor bhati, and the state has taken to arrests, false cases, night raids, and threats and harassment. The Panchayats extention to the Scheduled Areas Act, 1996, provides for self-rule in the tribal regions, with a direct participatory democracy, which gives all powers to the Gram Sabha of Voters in every Panchayat for decision making. Nandu Majhi is one of the rare Sarpanches who has been trying to make this participatory democracy a reality, seeking peoples participation in the Panchayat meetings, ensuring BPL cards, and inclusion in other welfare schemes like the Ananpurna Ana Yojana, etc. of all the needy, as also proper implementation of the NREGA. Mandibisi is the only Panchayat in Kashipur Block, and I daresay Rayagada District, where people have got more than 60 days of wages under the NREGA in the last financial year.

According to activists taking up the liquor issue, the Constitution of India does not allow a State to get into the business of intoxicating drinks itself, and so the Government of Orissa has little legitimacy in forming the Orissa Beverages Corporation and pursuing a policy of reckless expansion of the liquor business. They contradiction they point out is that while Maoists seek to enforce the mandate of the constitution, albeit through extra-legal methods, the lawfully established Government flouts constitutional provisions using the colonial legacy of the Bihar and Orissa Excise Act, 1915 as cover.

The question arises, how does one counter such short-sighted policies of the state? Are aggressive and unlawful Maoist dalams the only answer, or will there be a time when people like Sumani and Nandu, who only seek to take the mandate of the constitution forward in peaceful legal ways, are allowed legitimate space to function? It is time the government realised that its policy of encouraging the expansion of liquor business in Orissa has come under serious scrutiny as several brave people, like the women of Mandibisi and Sarpanch Nandu silently, doggedly pursue all legal and democratic means to fight the Bhaties which destroy their fragile household economies. It is time the Government took steps to review this policy, specially in the tribal areas.