Has the alcohol prohibition in Bihar, India resulted in less violence against women?

Written by Bhim Reddy and Kondepudy Bharati

The government of Bihar, India, implemented a total ban on alcohol, including its manufacture, sale, storage and consumption since April 2016. This policy was aimed at reducing domestic violence and curbing the misuse of earnings by men on alcohol which was believed to impoverish households and affect women’s wellbeing.

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[Cover image credit: Nikita Sharma]

 

Has the alcohol prohibition in Bihar, India resulted in less violence against women?

The government of Bihar, India, implemented a total ban on alcohol, including its manufacture, sale, storage and consumption since April 2016. This policy was aimed at reducing domestic violence and curbing the misuse of earnings by men on alcohol which was believed to impoverish households and affect women’s wellbeing.

Such policy framing may not actually address the complex issue of violence against women, including its deeper roots in patriarchy and other socio-economic structures. However, this bold initiative draws its legitimacy from the persuasive evidence of the negative socio-economic and psychological consequences, including domestic violence, of drinking, especially of ‘harmful’ and ‘hazardous’ levels of drinking.

Alcohol consumption and violence against women before the prohibition policy

In Bihar, nearly 30% of men in the age group of 15-49 consumed alcohol before the prohibition, the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 reveals. Women in this state faced high levels of intimate partner violence – 40% of ever-married women aged between 15 and 49 reported that they experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by their husbands during the previous 12 months. Moreover, while about 25% of women whose husbands did not consume alcohol experienced violence by their husbands, 75% of women whose husbands got drunk ‘very often’ experienced spousal violence. In this context, how did the prohibition policy impact such violence?  What do the crime records compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau reveal?

Incidence of violence against women after the prohibition policy

Violence against women seen through the number of recorded crimes against women has declined marginally in Bihar state and more significantly in Patna city (the state’s capital) after the alcohol ban (Figure 1). To avoid year-on-year fluctuations, we compared the average of reported crimes for three years after the prohibition with that of three years preceding it (excluding 2016, as the ban was implemented halfway through the year). Excluding cases of kidnapping and abduction, which are mostly filed by women’s families when they elope, crimes against women have clearly declined both in terms of rate (registered cases per 100,000 female population) and incidence (absolute numbers).

Overall, crimes under domestic violence show a decline, reflected in the combined cases under Indian Penal Code 498A (cruelty by husband and/or his relatives), 304B (dowry death), the Dowry Prohibition Act, and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (Figures 2A and 2B).

        

However, when disaggregated, cases under 498A show a drastic decline, but those under the Dowry Prohibition Act strongly persist – together they constitute a major share of domestic violence cases which have marginally fallen. While the cases related to dowry violence have been actually increasing since before the prohibition, there has been a slight reduction in the number of dowry deaths after the ban. Other crimes such as rape, attempt to rape, molestation and sexual harassment have also shown a considerable reduction (Figures 3A and 3B).

       

Is the violence reduction linked to alcohol prohibition?

The marginal reduction in violence levels, however, cannot be attributed to the alcohol prohibition policy without considering other socio-political and governance factors. Furthermore, in practice, the ban does not strictly translate into non-consumption of alcohol. The substantial number of cases of excise and prohibition being violated and the rise in crimes related to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS Act) (Figures 4A and 4B) and several news reports indicate some access to alcohol and an increase in substance abuse.

    

Limitations of police records and crime statistics

Even if some positive change is due to the alcohol ban, crime statistics can hardly capture such a change for the following reasons. First, reporting by women and recording by police are disproportionately low – compare 40 per 100 women reporting spousal violence in the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 with less than 15 per 100,000 in the crime records. Second, we are not aware if the levels of reporting by women survivors are less, the same or more in the case of drinking/non-drinking perpetrators. And third, changes in levels of crimes and changes in recording are also due to improved or non-responsive policing – this was clearly evident in the unprecedented recording of crimes against women across the country in the years immediately after the 2012 landmark gang-rape case in Delhi.

So what’s next?

To conclude, there seems to be a decline in crimes against women in Bihar during the period of the alcohol ban. It may look promising to many including the prohibitionists. However, assuming prohibition is the cause of this decline, its impact on crime seems meagre. Further, official crime statistics do not appropriately capture the actual changes in crimes, let alone their reduction due to the alcohol ban. A more nuanced understanding of the alcohol prohibition policy can only emerge through rigorous primary field research. Through the 2020 SVRI WBG DM Award,  the Institute for Human Development will research the impact of the ban on levels of IPV, household income and well-being in Bihar.

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Bhim Reddy, Ph.D in Anthropology,  is a Fellow at the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi.

Kondepudy Bharati has completed Master’s degree in Development Studies. She is a research intern at the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi.

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