A 10-year-old boy who studies in Class 5 of the village school would get Rs 10 every day from his father to buy him a pouch of country brew. His parents, agricultural labourers, leave for the fields early in the morning, and his older sister would get him ready for school.
“When they (parents) return in the evening, they are tired. To get refreshed, my father would give me money to buy a pouch of liquor from the local brewer. After drinking, he would sleep peacefully,” the boy told The Indian Express.
“Some days I would buy him the liquor and some days he would go himself. It had become routine.”
But now that routine has changed for the better. It has been nearly two years since his father gave up drinking. Liquor is no more sold in Singod village.
The change was brought about by 29-year-old village sarpanch, Kaushik Halpati, 10 other gram panchayat members and Sunil Patel, the principal of a government primary school in Singod village. The village in Navsari district had many students whose parents were drinkers. The sarpanch was distressed, watching young kids go on the liquor-buying errand for their parents after school. So, he decided to do something about it. So did school principal Sunil Patel.
Gujarat has had a prohibition law in place since 1960, and brewing of liquor and drinking attracts severe punishment. Yet, the majority of the 72 villages in Navsari taluka have local breweries. In Singod, the total population is 753, out of which around 500 belong to the tribal Halpati community. The village has a government primary school where children study from nursery to Class 5. Most Halpatis are employed as farm labourers in Singhod and in the neighbouring villages. Presently there are around 30 students in the school.
Principal Sunil Patel, who has been with the school for 10 years, learnt that some students’ parents were drinkers. He began with the children. He instructed them to tell their parents that if they really loved them, they should quit consuming liquor. However, the real push came when one of the parents came to a parent-teacher meeting in an inebriated state.
“I noticed him drunk and told him to sit in the centre surrounded by parents with their children in a circle. I explained to him that regular consumption of liquor would result in deterioration of his health and also have an adverse impact on his family,” Patel said. “We later directed his son to stand in front of all the parents and made the father take a pledge, putting his hand on the head of his son, saying, ‘From now onwards, I will stop drinking liquor. First I will reduce the quantity, and later I will totally stop it.’ Ashamed, the parent quit drinking.”
The principal said they created awareness not only against liquor consumption but also held a rally with students carrying banners saying no to tobacco chewing too. Kaushik Halpati says he took the plunge in the sarpanch elections only because he was “emotionally broken seeing the kids going to the liquor dens to buy pouches for their parents”.
After Kaushik was elected in 2017, he took all 10 gram panchayat members into confidence and tabled a proposal to stop the sale of liquor. The move was appreciated by the villagers.
He said the biggest challenge was to reform the brewers – Ramesh and Ashok Halpati, and three others who would purchase country brew in cans from the neighbouring village and bring them to Singhod for sale, namely Kishor Halpati, Paresh Halpati and Ishwar Halpati.
“There was competition among the liquor brewers and sellers and the rivals would tip off the police and get the opponent arrested,” said Kaushik. “Those who were bringing liquor from the neighbouring villages stopped selling in the past five years, but Ramesh and Ashok continued to brew and sell liquor.”
Dinesh Halpati (27), a close friend of Kaushik who works in a diamond factory in Navsari and lives in Singod, said, even Halpati youths supported the movement to change the mindset of the people and stop the sale of liquor.
“We went to Ramesh and Ashok and told them to stop selling liquor. First they got angry, but on seeing our large numbers the duo became quiet,” said Dinesh. “We explained to them that their children were also growing up and they would not find suitable life partners if they continued their activities. First, they refused to relent, but when we stood firm that we would not allow them to sell liquor in the village, they found themselves helpless. We also told them that we would tip off the police and the whole village would boycott them. Finally they agreed.”
Ramesh now trades in fish and Ashok runs a tailoring shop. Singod village has thus set an example for the entire district. “For the past two years, not a single person in our village has been selling or brewing liquor.
Those who are addicted to it bring the liquor from neighbouring villages and consume it at home,” said Dinesh.
Ramesh Halpati (55) with his wife Kanta (50), had been in the liquor brewing business for years but now life has changed. Ramesh began his new business of buying fish from Navsari fish market and selling it in Singhod and other neighbouring villages. Ashok Halpati who had been running a tailoring shop in the village before he began brewing liquor his wife Nayna has now turned his attention back to the tailoring shop.
Ramesh is father of two sons Ravi (32) and Mukesh (29), who are both now married. About two years ago, Ravi began working in a diamond factory in Navsari, while Mukesh does farming on his father’s agricultural land.
“We were earlier earning more than Rs 1,800 per day in the liquor business. Now we earn all of Rs 10,000 per month,” Ramesh Halpati said. “I am also addicted to liquor. My grandchildren are now grown up and they don’t like it. First we were angry with Sarpanch Kaushik, but later when the majority of villagers supported his cause, we agreed (to give up the liquor business) as we wanted to live happily in the village.”
He said he bought cattle, and that his wife and two daughters-in-law sell milk to the cooperative society in the village. “Now, we don’t have run-ins with the police or any quarrels at home,” he added.
Ramesh showed this reporter where they used to brew liquor in their backyard and stock it hidden from prying eyes. “When customers came to our house, we used to take it out from the secret place and sell it to them,” he said. “We didn’t show the place to customers, fearing they might tip off the police.”
Ramesh said he used to consume liquor three times a day in the past two years. “I have reduced it, and now once a week I consume liquor, bringing it from the neighbouring village,” he said. “Our life has changed and we are all now happy as the villagers give us great respect and love. We have left behind our enmity with the village sarpanch and other gram panchayat members.”
The change in Ashok Halpati’s life has been similar after he quit the illegal liquor business and restarted his tailoring shop. “In the past two years, I have stopped my liquor business. I might have stopped anyway, as my daughter was growing up,” said Ashok. “I feared that when my daughter came of marriageable age, no one would come with a proposal for her. My son is at present studying in class 11 and I wanted him to get an education and a proper job.”
Ashok said he had been in the liquor brewing business for the past 15 years. “Before that, I was working in a tailoring shop. Now I have started my ladies’ tailoring shop with the savings from the liquor business,” he added.
Asked about the change in Singod village, Navsari District Superintendent of Police Girish Pandya was appreciative of the effort taken by its youth. “I really appreciate it. The role of the police is to stop evil of liquor in society, but here the youths of the village, including the sarpanch and school principal, took the initiative and become successful too,” he said “I visited the village and met the youth who created awareness and brought about the change. We congratulated the entire team in front of the villagers.
We are also planning to organise a programme calling the sarpanchs of several villages to showcase the Singod example. We will felicitate the village sarpanch and his team members and have them talk about their experience.”
He added, “Earlier our police team use to conduct raids in Singod and nab liquor consumers and sellers, but in the past two years we have not carried out a single raid in the village.”
Liquor consumption in the village has significantly dropped in the past two years. There are still people addicted to liquor in the village but they have also reduced consumption