A brief look at trade unions’ role in Anti-liquor movement
Alcoholism is one of the most pressing problems facing the Indian working class. One fifth of alcohol consumption in the world is in India. Barring the states like Gujarat where liquor is banned, 20% of most of the state Government’s revenue is due to excise on Alcohol. In Tamil Nadu, the problem is especially acute as since 2013, over 20,000 crore rupees of annual income for the State Government is through the State Liquor retail service, Tamilnadu State Marketing corporation (TASMAC). It is well known that Tamil Nadu is considered to be one of the few remaining welfare states in the country. However, this welfare-ism, which are really freebies at placating the citizens, come at the expense of making significant portion of its adult population addicted to liquor.
In last few years, there have been a wave of anti-liquor protests across the state. As such, an anti-establishment campaign like this attracts to it a variety of currents from the entire spectrum of the politics. Right from Gandhian activists like Sasi Perumal to right wing parties like the BJP and a spectrum of the left parties have protested against the state sponsored free flow of liquor over last few decades. The protests organized by the left parties have often been led by women comrades and activists from various youth wings. Trade unions and working class organizations, other than few independent unions, have been conspicuous by their absence in leading or even significantly getting involved in such protests. As the issue primarily concerns workers and their families, this is a puzzle.
Does the resolution of this puzzle lie in understanding and addressing the all important question of growing economism in many of the trade unions and their increasing lack of political engagement outside of economic issues (fighting communal forces for example) ? This is a complex question requiring a rather lengthy analysis and retrospection that we do not try to answer here. Instead, we look at the history of Independent India to find inspirational examples of anti-liquor movements in which workers’ unions took the lead. Two examples stand out. One is the struggle initiated and carried forward by the Chattisgadh Miners union (CMSS) under the leadership of comrade Niyogi, and the other is the struggle in which Singareni Miners union (SIKASA) participated in Telangana.
Sharab Bandi Campaign by CMSS
In February/March 1977, the miners of Dalli-Rajhara Mines in Chattisgadh formed Chattisgadh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS) under the leadership of Shankar Guha Niyogi. Within two months of its formation, lakhs of miners joined the union even though it was not recognized then. The union organised successful actions and strikes. While the primary demands were increase in wages improvement, working conditions and abolition of contract system, eventually the union became engaged in a number of other activities.
As half of the miners workforce comprised of women, rampant alcoholism was a pressing issue among them. In fact, CMSS itself had to contend with the problem of alcoholoism among the male miners. When CMSS fought for and obtained wage increases for contract workers, contractors were able to siphon it off by sale of liquor to the workers. Thus even after increase in the wages of the miners, their standard of living was not changing. It is in this context that Comrade Niyogi said “Should the blood of martyrs then go down the drain of the wine shop?”.
During the initial years of CMSS, consumption of alcohol in Dalli-Rajhara increased one and a half times in 1976-1982 (20,000 to 36,000 proof litres) according to official figures. In 1981, after a large number of mine workers died after consuming adulterated liquor in Mahasmund , CMSS launched the anti-liquor campaign. As the women workers were the worst victims of alcoholism , they took the lead in implementing this campaign. During this movement, many union members were attacked and harrassed by liquor contractors who were also the labour contractors in the mines. Com. Niyogi was arrested during this movement under National Security Act. However, the Sharab-Bandi (Ban the liquor) campaign is reported to have freed tens of thousands of workers from alcoholism. It was very much part of Com. Niyogi’s ethos that union activities should not be confined to shop floor issues but should address all aspects that affect workers life .
SIKASA and anti liquor campaign
Singareni Karmika Samakhya (SIKASA) was a militant trade union of Singareni coal Miners which was formed in 1980. In 1981, it led a historic 56 day strike in Mandamarri, Srirampur and Godavarikhani against the so-called Eight Muster system . This was a system where for one day strike, workers were penalized eight days worth of their wages (A trick which is still in vogue among Industrialists as recent response of the Maruti Management to one hour tool down strike of Maruti worker revealed or in the case of Pricol workers when they struck work on April 25th on behalf of Tamil Nadu farmers).
As in the case of CMSS, activities of SIKASA were not restricted merely to wage issues and throughout eighties, it continued to fight for mine safety, against exploitation , intimidation of miners by contractors and their goons and against contract system. SIKASA also initiated struggles against increasing prices of the liquor, as any wage increases they had procured for the workers was wasted on liquor consumption. However the movement they initiated against liquor pricing was not strong enough by itself to turn into an all out anti-arrack movement.
During late eighties and early nineties another independent struggle was emerging in Andhra which was an all out anti-liquor agitation led by Progressive Women’s organization. This agitation, which was started by rural women, swept Andhra Pradesh and thousands of rural women participated in it demanding ban of the local liquor Arrack. The struggle in fact, began in the Singareni coal-mine area and SIKASA joined the women protestors actively. The anti-liquor struggle in Andhra is known for the historic struggles led by women  and it is well known that then Chief Minister Naidu was forced to ban liquor in 1994 for two years (A ban that was later lifted.). As SIKASA was banned in 90s, detailed documentation of it’s participation in the anti-arrack movement does not seem to be available.
Anti TASMAC Movement in Tamil Nadu
In Tamil Nadu, opposition against alcoholism and the TASMAC culture is strong among youth and women. In fact, on May Day, several villages led by youth and women used the Gram Sabha constituted on the day to demand resolutions to remove TASMAC liquor shops in their neighborhood . This happened inspite of actions of State machinery which apparently had given an oral order not to pass any such resolutions. In 39 paanchayats in Kattankulathur near Tambaram, the resolutions were not passed in spite of people demanding . Only one panchayat Mudichur where the people were resolute was able to pass the resolution banning TASMAC. One wonders why unions and working class organizations do not support these voices of women and youth and join them in forcing the panchayats to pass such resolutions.
As the struggles of SISAKA and CMSS show, working class organizations who on one hand do not fit in the mould of established trade unions and on the other do not consider legal channels as the only tools available to the workers for their struggles, took the issue of alcoholism in workers lives head on and fought against it. The link of SIKASA with Progressive organization of Women in Andhra show, that by fostering close links with other progressive forces in the society, workers participated in issues which went far beyond their economic rights.