By Saurabh Sharma for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, known for its leather tanneries, is one of the most socially and economically backward districts in the country. And with elections around the corner, a regular threat is set to grow still larger here – that of ‘Kachchi Sharab’ or hooch. Unnao, in fact, is notorious for the production of spurious liquor from molasses mixed with methyl alcohol or denatured spirit.
But not if IPS officer Neha Pandey has anything to do with it!
Posted as Superintendent of Police (SP) of Unnao since February 2016, this 2009 batch officer has launched a full frontal attack on the country-liquor industry in her area, using the help of local women. With their support, she has busted 29 liquor mafia, hauled in 20,000 litres of illicit liquor and destroyed several hundred hooch manufacturing units.
As soon as she joined work, SP Neha Pandey called a meeting of all circle officers and inspectors to get a handle on the state of liquor trade in the district. Discussions revealed that the best way to tackle this menace would be to start a dialogue with the people themselves. To this, Kotwali circle officer Dr. Hridesh Katheria added a suggestion to hold chaupal (council) meetings with the women in every village. After all, with their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers addicted to hooch, they were the indirect victims of it too.
Pandey took up the idea and decided to call these meetings – ‘Samadhaan Aapke Dwar’.
Involving women proved to be a masterstroke. But not before the first chaupal flopped completely. Cowed down by centuries of patriarchy, it wasn’t easy to get the women of Unnao to join this fight. Additionally, Unnao has a 56% female literacy rate against the national average of 65%. The district has a sex ratio of 901 females for every 1,000 males compared to the national average of 940.
To get them involved, Pandey decided to give these women something to cheer about at the chaupal. Something about themselves.
At the next Safipur Gram Sabha, Pandey added a magic show to the program. The show was based on the theme of women empowerment and spreading awareness on the harmful effects of liquor.
Mixing entertainment with a purpose was a resounding success. Women flocked to the chaupal. The magic show held them spellbound. But it also drove in the message that illicit liquor kills, and if that was their lot, then it was also their lot to fight it.
They were enthralled by the idea of battling alcoholism at home by fighting the illicit liquor trade.
Soon, a girls’ singing competition and other themes were added to the Samadhaan Aapke Dwaar card. Attendance multiplied and more meaningful messages were delivered.
Pandey framed the programme in such a way that it became a one-stop solution for all problems. The women watched, listened, got wise and were empowered. She, in turn, heard their problems and tried to solve them “on the spot”. The idea worked. More and more women reported their problems ranging from domestic violence to getting an LPG connection and a ration card.
So far, the innovative cop has held a Chaupal at least once in all the 1044 Gram Panchayats of Unnao. The response has been overwhelming. To not lose touch with the grassroots, she has appointed a ‘head-lady’ in every Gram Panchayat. Now, either this head solves a problem on the spot or passes it on to Pandey and the local police station in-charge.
Neembu Kali, 41, is the appointed head of Maurava village. She lost her husband and young son to hooch. Since then, with the help of the local police and by being in direct touch with the district police chief, she has helped other women get rid of illicit liquor distilling stills at their homes.
“I have seen several people dying, becoming blind and contracting other diseases from alcohol. Now I do not want any mother to lose a child due to hooch,” says this former hooch-maker.
“With the Chaupal initiative, women inform the police of a family member or person they know involved in illicit liquor business,” Pandey tells Youth Ki Awaaz. And it’s through this network that the police have been successful in seizing 20,000 litres of spurious liquor in the last 10 months, she says. Through them, she has also identified and busted 29 liquor mafia gangs.
Ajay Pasi of Nawabganj, who lost his brother to illicit liquor, says the tough cop helped women to speak out on the issue. “Neha madam has given them a voice,” says Pasi, who is a graduate student of CSJM University Kanpur.
Inspector General of Police of 1090, a women power line, Navniet Sikera says Pandey is doing “fantastic work for women empowerment and has the potential to end the liquor menace” in the district. “She has vision, and the plan. She is executing it very successfully. I bow to her courage,” Navniet told YKA.
Come elections, ‘Kachchi Sharab’ acquires a potency all its own. It turns vote-catcher. With UP elections due in 2017, hooch is set to play its part.
As Kali tells YKA, alcohol flows free during elections. No matter which party doles it out, everyone drinks, even minors below age 16.
Recalling the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 2012 Vidhan Sabha elections, Kali says alcohol was distributed free more than once a day on both election days “in return for votes”.
So will SP Neha Pandey be able to end this menace before elections start?
Going by what this dabangg cop and her gang of women have achieved so far, the future looks promising!