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Sumani Jhodia: Woman of substance


DHRUTIKAM MOHANTY | Bhubaneswar, August 12, 2011 14:56
Tags : Sumani Jhodia: Woman of substance | alcohol | patnaik | chief minister | orissa |

It was 20 years ago that life turned a corner for Sumani Jhodia and her long-suffering tribal community. The then Orissa Chief Minister, Biju Patnaik, was on a visit to Rayagada district in 1991. In Siriguda village, the illiterate, but dauntless, tribal woman stepped up and launched a tirade against the issuance of government permits to country liquor shops in the area.

“Sir, alcohol has destroyed us. We have been reduced to penury. We have lost our gold ornaments, our lands and all other valuable belongings and all this has happened because our men are addicted to liquor. Domestic violence and other social ills are rampant here. Why do you sanction licences to country liquor shops? If you cannot stop the sale of alcohol, you have no right to be our Chief Minister,” Sumani thundered.

Patnaik was impressed with the lady’s courage and clear-headedness. On the spur of the moment, the Chief Minister decided to appoint Sumani his personal adviser on matters related to the state’s incipient anti-liquor movement. She was given the powers of a police officer. District collectors and superintendent of police of the district were officially instructed to comply with her orders. Overnight, Sumani Jhodia became the face of the anti-liquor movement all over India.

Sumani’s crusade to save her community of the ill of alcoholism and empower its women to control their lives did not start a day too soon. For years, the residents of the tribal belt of Orissa had suffered the consequences of the men folk’s addiction to country liquor.

Even as many died of starvation and families were torn asunder, illicit liquor shops thrived in the area. The men simply couldn’t kick the habit despite the widespread havoc it caused. Sumani decided to wipe out country liquor dens in her locality.

She launched an anti-liquor movement with the support of local self-help groups. The impact of the movement in Rayagada was felt far and wide. Along with a band of female volunteers, she would set up pickets in front of country liquor shops to prevent them from plying their trade. The strategy caught on quickly out as more and more local joined her movement.

Danger lurked at every step and goons were let loose on her. Sumani had to risk her life on many occasions as the hooch mafia attempted to eliminate her. As many as eight criminal cases were filed against her and she was dragged to court repeatedly. But nothing could deflect Sumani from her chosen path. Gradually her movement bore fruits and, as the women closed ranks, nobody in the area dared brew illicit liquor in the area nor could any tribal man drown himself in illicit liquor.

In the early 1990s, Sumani organised her own self-help group of tribal women – Pragati Mahila Mandal – to make and market brooms from the raw material collected from the forest. This gave birth to the self-help group movement among tribal women in Orissa. The economic power and freedom that they tasted emboldened them to start a social movement against the evil practice of consuming liquor prevalent in her community.

The Union government bestowed an award to Sumani in 2003 in recognition of her contribution. She donated the prize money to welfare of tribal girls. She is now in her 60's but age hasn’t slowed her down a bit. Sumani says that her mission will not be over until every single brewing unit in and around her block is shut down for good.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017