A Green ban

Kanchanpur has some unusual people: drunk men and green women. Ignored and uncared for by the men, the region's lands were barren. Then, the women decided it was time for a change...

Published: Monday 15 March 1999

A Green ban

-- officially recognised as one of the poorest regions of Nepal, the people of Kanchanpur, a district in the country's far-west, have had to survive with whatever little returns they got from their lands. And these were not enough. The district was being afflicted by a bigger, more formidable problem -- hard liquor. It had all the region's men in its grasp. And as far as the women can remember, the men always preferred the pouch to the plough. And Kanchanpur paid for their drunkenness. Its fields were almost barren, and crop yields low. But of late, there has been a change. The land is becoming greener, and there are reasons for this.

The women of Kanchanpur decided to take matters into their hands. They forced the men to pay attention to the land. But this change took place only after an incident which, on one hand, shook the men folk and on the other promised women a better tomorrow.

Janaki Chanda, a resident of this area, had for long suffered silently. Every day her husband would come home in a drunken state and subject her to physical abuse and violence. Chanda had to put an end to all this, but did not know how. For she belonged to a patriarchal society, living a life no different from her mother's or her grandmother's. But unlike other women in her family, who spent most of their life in anguish, she choose not to. She killed her husband with an axe when he was in an inebriated state. Today, she is lodged in the Mahendranagar district jail.

There were many like Chanda in this region of Nepal who worked in the fields in the day and the rest of their time did household chores. Though dependent on agricultural produce for survival, there weren't any strong hands to do the ploughing. "Consequently, the farm yield went down and the struggle for survival became all the more difficult," says Mansa Devi of Dodhara village. "My husband would start drinking early in the morning. He refused to work. Forget about spending money to improve the crop yield, we didn't even have enough for a proper meal a day. All the money we earned through selling the crops was spent on liquor. No improvement was carried out on the land," she recalls.

That was the state of the Kanchanpur women just a few years back. Today, things have changed. "Men have started working in the fields. This has not only reduced the women's work load but also helped in the eco-generation of the land," says Maneka Bhansal, zilla chairperson of Akhil Nepali Mahila Sangh ( anms) . "The crop yield is also going up. In the first year itself, the change was apparent." Earlier, if there was no money to buy liquor, "some men went to the extent of selling their land. Now they are full of regrets", says Bhansal.
Preparing for the change Cutting across party lines and caste differences, various women organisations got together to fight against the social evils. Protest marches, awareness campaigns by these organisations in all the 19 villages of the district, and vandalising liquor vends in the district finally paid off. After a year-long struggle, in October 1996 Kanchanpur became the third district, after Dharchula and Acham, in Nepal where consumption and sale of liquor is prohibited.

anms , affiliated to the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), along with the Nepali Congress started the anti-liquor movement. The women wing of the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party ( rpp , then one party) also joined the protest. They began by spreading awareness among the women living in Dodhara and Chandini villages. Women, who also had been victims of liquor abuse, readily gave them support. "They joined the agitation in full strength and by cajoling or coercing made their men turn over a new leaf," says Bhansal. "In one incident in Dodhara village, the village women battered 40-year-old Janaki Dhami, a liquor seller who was entering the village with two cans of liquor. She recieved 17 stitches on her head," she recalls.

The women also sent letters to liquor distributors asking them to close shop. "When they did not listen, we destroyed their shops and liquor stocks," says Bhansal. "The whole town reeked of alcohol for the next couple of days," adds Purna Kala Aryar of anms .

"Initially, the men of Kanchanpur, who were used to living like kings in their houses, enslaving the women to all the hard work be it in the fields or houses, found it hard to accept their women speaking aloud," says Aryar. "But it was not hard to convince them," she adds. Only the liquor distributors (including a few women) and members of the Tharu and Bhutia community, for whom liquor is a must in all their rituals and ceremonies, resisted the move.

Finally, at the behest of the women, the then prime minister of Nepal, Man Mohan Adhikari, during his October 1996 visit to Kanchanpur, declared the district a "dry zone".

"Now things have changed," says Bhansal. "Women do not have to worry about getting home before dusk and children have started going to school. Now the men are also spending money on their children's future." says Aryar.

Since the men work in the fields, the women have more time for themselves. "The anms has provided the villages with sewing machines. The women are given the basic training in tailoring. Once they learn the craft, they open their own shops. This helps them supplement their income earned from the sale of crops," says Bhansal. "It has helped the poor a lot," says Radha Devi Malla, 50, shopkeeper in Mahendranagar. Besides this, many women now make money by selling firewood. But unlike their predecessors, these women go in for sustainable cutting of firewood.

The anms has also been instrumental in imparting education to their children.
When bans do not work However, liquor flow into the district has not stopped. "For ready-to-drink anytime, anywhere consumers, a bottle that was available for Rs 50 earlier, now sells for Rs 200," says Nanda Devi Khatri of rpp. "And many politicians and the police are also involved in the smuggling racket," says 55-year-old Krishna Malla, a shopkeeper.

Former liquor vendors have a different story to tell. "We have no land. Banning liquor is like kicking us on our stomach. We are literally on the streets now. I have to survive with whatever I get by selling herbs now," Bishna Bhota, 55.

"We should have just one shop and that should be located in a far away place. And there should be shop timings like they have in India." This approach is now being advocated by members of the rpp . Needless to say, a few people are ready to do with the evil, if it means spending a little less on it. But there's no going back on the ban for most of the women of Kanchanpur.

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