18 July 1880: Taking a serious note of widespread consumption of alcohol, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule wrote a letter to Plunket, president of Pune municipality’s acting committee.
Mahatma Jyotiba Phule was a member of the Pune municipality from 1876 to 1882.
The letter read:
The municipality has spent a vast amount of money on appointing staff and running the health department with the aim of maintaining public health. Pune city was not familiar with the sight of liquor shops. But now liquor shops are seen even in crowded areas, thus sowing the seeds of decline in public morals. This nullifies the municipality’s aim to maintain public health. With the opening of liquor shops, alcoholism has increased, and many a families destroyed. The vice of alcoholism has gripped the city. To control the spread of this vice, at least to a certain extent, I suggest that the municipality should impose a tax on liquor shops in proportion to the damage they do. I believe no municipality has imposed such a tax, though the central government has done so. The municipality should make enquiries about this. I shall be grateful if my resolution is placed before the general assembly.
The letter created a stir. Dnanprakash newspaper lauded Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and said following in his support: “The issue to which Jotirao for the first time has drawn the municipality’s attention is of great importance. He deserves to be congratulated for his action.”
Mahatma Jyotiba Phule received an acknowledgement for his letter from the president of the municipality. The letter was placed before the committee in the first meeting itself and the following resolution was passed:
The president should decide whether to put this before the committee or not. According to the resolution passed by the central government on 22 October 1877, no tax can be imposed on alcohol. But the assembly hopes that it will be possible to reduce the number of liquor shops in Pune.
The acting committee’s resolution and the original letter were handed to Mr Ritchnell, president of the municipality, who sent them on 27 July 1880 to Henry Dickson, an excise officer, for his comments. Dickson returned them on 30 July with the following comments:
We humbly state that during 1873-77 there were four liquor shops in Pune. Since 1877-78, six new ones have opened, bringing the number to ten. The District Governor had given permission to open new shops because where there are no liquor shops, illicit liquor is prepared. The action was taken to discourage brewing of illicit, harmful liquor in Pune. In 1874, 15617 gallons of liquor were sold. In 1879 the sale went up to 22912 gallons.
The District Governor was convinced that alcoholism in Pune was rapidly on the increase. On 8 August 1880, Ritchnell assigned the case to the public superintendent who sent the following reply, on 27th August:
The reason alcoholism is on the increase is that previously the rich were not addicted to it, but now they are. It however may not be true that they have their fill of country liquor.
Ritchnell sent all the correspondence to the Pune municipality with the remark: It cannot be claimed that alcoholism has increased on account of the increased number of liquor shops. The question is whether anything can be done to put a stop to the spread of this vice.
In its resolution regarding Jotirao’s letter, the municipality expressed the desire to put in effort to reduce this vice from spreading. He was not the first to protest against alcoholism in Maharashtra. In 1852 the people of Satara had sent an application to the government to close down all liquor shops. In 1869 an officer named C. W. Bell published an account of the government’s excise policy, which stated:
Towards the end of the Peshwa regime, alcoholism had gone up. Taxes earned from it had increased. Offenders were sentenced to severe punishment.
Influence of Jotirao’s work and leadership began to be felt widely in Maharashtra. He became the mouthpiece for the grievances of the downtrodden. There was no leader quite like him. He paved the way for the new era of social activism.