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February 13, 1998


Prohibition is still an issue, but there are no political backers

J Sesha Sai in Dubagunta

Dubagunta is where the storm that swept aside the Congress government in 1994, originated. At its eye was an issue that enthralled the state and revived the moribund political fortunes of N T Rama Rao: prohibition.

Years later, the name does not click in the recesses of one's memory even in Kavali, just 30 km away.

'Dubagunta?' the rural folk ask, as a few dishevelling scratches bring home the realisation. 'Anti-liquor agitation?' a mumble departs a villager's hesitant lips.

The next bus for Dubagunta will arrive only after half an hour, they say. The wait, amid the pungent smell of villagers's sweat laced with intermittent bidi smoke, triggers boredom. And, in turn, memories.

Dubagunta. October 1992. Sparks of the anti-liquor agitation began flying in this remote village. Soon it began spreading like wildfire. In no time, 800 villages were grappling with the battle against the bottle. With a dash of politics bringing in more arsenal, the entire state was on the brink of a voluntary conscription against the heady drink.

Shaking the pillars of the Congress state government -- then chief minister and present Congress Working Committee member Kotla Vijayabhaskara Reddy -- which agreed to introduce prohibition in a phased manner. But the agitationists would settle for nothing less than total prohibition, and the stir became a major election issue in the 1994 assembly poll. Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, who was then biding time in the Opposition, promised total prohibition. And swept the poll.

And kept his promise.

The blare of a bus horn halts memories. And one hops in. The conductor blows his whistle, beginning one's journey across the suffocating barren fields.

'Barren fields in February, when one must see dancing green paddy fields under a benign sun?' one may ask.

But that is the plight of this area falling under Nellore district which knows no other season but summer. Despite this, the locals dread clouds. The smell of rains spreads shock waves till the radio beams the good news. 'Thank god it is not another cyclone,' the locals rejoice, thinking of the annual disaster that devastates their land -- gusty winds turn asbestos sheets into frisbies, twist railway traction equipment into weird shapes as if they were a small piece of wire in a playful child's hands, wash away weak house and huts as acres and acres of land turns into temporary lakes.

The cyclones, however, save the area from what could have been crippling droughts, replenishing as they do the ground water. The villagers basically survive on scant income from agriculture. The more enterprising ones end up becoming labourers in towns like Kavali which draws its sustenance from government offices, educational institutions and trading.

The bus had just stopped at a small village, and begins picking up speed again. Presently the ride is smooth. 'Is it because of Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu's Janmaboomi scheme (involving voluntary work for development projects)?' one wonders as a blast of dust forces one to shuts one's nose with a kerchief.

Suddenly the bus begins to toss up and down, as if it is a boat caught in a high tide, a cloud of dust engulfs the bus, and refuses to go away till one hits Dubagunta.

And the birthplace of the anti-liquor stir arrives.

'Where is Uddin N Rosamma, the woman who spearheaded the agitation in the area which spread to the entire state?'

'The woman in red.' Carrying a small child, she is locked in a verbal joust with a party campaign team.

'Come home,' she says as the bus zooms away, throwing up another cloud of dust.

What inspired the ordinary looking farm hand to trigger the stir? "My husband gave us hell -- my plight was worse than that of Sita -- before the bottle claimed him 20 years back," says the 65-year-old woman. "Hundreds of women in my village were still braving the torture. I wanted to bail them out."

But why did she chose that October day? "That was the year when an adult education programme was launched in our village," she says. "When women started attending the classes, the torture increased. 'Are you crazy? Why are you attending classes at this ripe age?' The drunkards started beating up their wives.

"Then we decided that we should ensure that liquor does not reach our village. Eighty women from the village joined hands with me, and we stopped the boy who used to bring country liquor to our village on the outskirts. And turned him back. 'Henceforth, don't bring liquor to our village,' we told him. He agreed after great persuasion.

"Soon the agitation spread to 800 villages. And I started addressing meetings all over the state."

By then Leftist organisations like the Jana Natya Mandali and Jana Vignanana Veedika were at the forefront of the agitation. Thanks to their effort, Rosamma soon became a powerful symbol of the anti-liquor agitation.

Then came the state assembly election. And summons from N T Rama Rao for Rosamma who belongs to his dominant Kamma caste. She shared the dais with NTR at Nellore, about 80 km away.

'Brothers and sisters,' he told the meeting, 'Make me the chief minister, and I will impose prohibition.' "He draped a shawl around my shoulders and gave me an apple." NTR kept his promise.

Prohibition came in January 1995. But the state did not go completely dry. Liquor was always available at a premium..

And came the palace coup. Then state finance minister Nara Chandababu Naidu rebelled against his father-in-law NTR and usurped power.

Saddled with a bankrupt government, Naidu started slapping ample doses of taxes, triggering spiralling prices. The justification was prohibition. He kept saying the state had lost a lot of revenue because of prohibition... Soon it was lifted.

Why did Rosamma keep quiet? "I opposed the move, and started addressing meetings. But I was singled out for abuse at public meetings. A shower of rotten eggs used to greet me wherever I went."

Who was behind the move? "This liquor lobby," butts in Rosamma's son even as she says, "I don't know."

Little support was forthcoming from the people who were reeling under the burden of rising prices -- even the price of subsidised rice shot up from Rs 2 per kg to Rs 3.50. "Prohibition was never effective," says hawker Ramesh of Zillavaripur, near Dubagunta. "Why fight for its continuation?"

Asked why prohibition failed, Ananta Ramaiah, the Nellore-based advocate and executive member of the state government committee for spreading the message of prohibition among the people, says, "The movement did not fail. The leaders betrayed us. The Left, who led the movement, have an alliance with the ruling Telugu Desam, and there is no way they could oppose them,.

"The people still want prohibition. Is any party willing to back them?"

Regarding the effectiveness of prohibition, he says, "Nothing will become successful overnight. To give up the bottle, a concerted campaign has to be sustained for one generation. Agreed, meanwhile bottleggers would make a killing... But the Telugu Desam was never committed. Vijayabhaskara Reddy was at least sincere -- he gave Rs 3 million to our committee to spread the message. NTR and Naidu never spared a rupee."

A senior police officer agrees. "There was no political will."

On whose part? "Naidu devised a cunning strategy to spread the lie that prohibition had failed," the officer says. "Or else, why would Excise and prohibition Commissioner Janat Hussain make a public statement that prohibition has failed? Would Naidu keep quiet if it did not have his tacit nod?"

Asked why Naidu had to kill prohibition, the official says, "He inherited a bankrupt government, and was unable to pay salaries to state government employees. Moreover, after the palace coup, he had to repair his battered image with development schemes. He needed money, Lifting prohibition was the only way."

And when the decision came in January 1997 -- only the ban on Indian made foreign liquor was lifted; sale of country liquor is still prohibited -- several factors forced the erstwhile anti-liquor agitationists to take it lying down.

"The people's anti-liquor sentiments were shattered by the ineffective imposition of prohibition," says another police officer. Moreover, a newspaper network -- which had an axe to grind when the Congress was in power and which had fanned the stir all over the state -- was no longer interested."

So the agitation never died. It was killed. And the people still long for prohibition minus the burden of crippling price hikes. "It will be good if prohibition continues," says octogenarian Chinkka of the village. "But do we have a say?"

Don't elections give her that power? Who will she vote for? "I don't know," she says.

That seems to be the mood of the area, which falls in Ongole constituency, represented till recently by liquor baron and industrialist Magunta Subbarami Reddy.

Known for his charitable work, Reddy was gunned down by the People War Group Naxalites on December 1, 1995, in Ongole, nearly 60 km from Kavali.

Such was his charisma -- despite his liquor business -- that his widow Parvatamma could effortlessly win the seat in the 1996 Lok Sabha election.

But this time round she is not in the fray, asking Subbarami Reddy's brother Srinivasul to contest the poll. He faces a three-cornered contest with the Telugu Desam Party's Mekapati Rajamohan Reddy and the Bharatiya Janata Party's Kondapalli Duravayya Naidu.

Asked if the TDP will face a backlash in the election, a senior government official says, "Undoubtedly."

Clubbed with the Nellore-based Maguntas's charisma, the Congress may effortlessly regain the seat. But without Rosamma's vote. "I will vote for the BJP, not because I want to be an MLA or MP. But because they have agreed to relaunch the battle against the bottle."

Rosamma has now joined the party.

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