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Beyond political slugfests and SITs cracking down on illegal units, hooch deaths are shockingly regular across India

In one of the worst hooch tragedies in recent times, more than 100 people have died after consuming a killer alcoholic brew in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand over the past three days. The incident has not only grabbed headlines but also resulted in political mudslinging between ruling and opposing factions of the two states. While the recent tragedy may have catalysed the already charged political landscape of the country, what makes hooch-related incidents more poignant is the shocking regularity in which these take place. This, despite the fact that regular raids are conducted by officials on illegal manufacturing dens and awareness drives taken out to dissuade people from consumption of the lethal brew.

Victims undergo treatment in Saharanpur. PTI

Victims undergo treatment in Saharanpur. PTI

The deaths were first reported on Friday from Baalupur village in Uttarakhand’s Roorkee where a day before, on Thursday, people from Saharanpur and Kushinagar in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh as well as residents of Baalupur had gathered for a terahvi (after death ritual). By Monday, the number of those dead mounted to more than 100, with many still critically ill. Police of both states are still trying to trace where the liquor was actually brewed and ways in which it was distributed.

While action was initially taken against seven excise and seven police officials of Uttar Pradesh, two senior officers were subsequently suspended by the government on Sunday. The Uttar Pradesh government had also started a 15-day campaign on Friday to crack down on the sale of illicit liquor and its distribution in the state.

As a result of this drive, authorities had filed cases against 297 people in Uttar Pradesh and 49 in Uttarakhand, and 215 people have been arrested in Uttar Pradesh. A Special Investigation team (SIT) has also been formed to probe the incident by the Uttar Pradesh government and submit a report within 10 days.

Both Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand governments had, on Saturday, announced Rs two lakh ex-gratia for family members of deceased and Rs 50,000 to those hospitalised.

Why is hooch toxic?

Ridiculously cheap and sold for as low as Rs 20 a bottle, the concoction is usually made in unregulated shanties and by makers who are known to often get their quantities, especially deadly chemical compounds such as methanol wrong. Doing so can cause breathlessness, blindness, slow motor responses, and death. Methanol is extremely toxic, even a 10 ml can cause blindness and 30 ml can cause death within 10 to 30 hours.

In the recent tragedy, a combination of urea, battery liquid, caustic soda and sedatives were found to have been mixed with the alcoholic brew that made the liquor poisonous, according to a Times of India. Reports also suggested that doctors had found methanol in the viscera report of the victims.

Recipe for disaster

Bihar, 2016 – Four months after the Nitish Kumar government imposed a total ban on the sale and prohibition on liquor, 16 people had died in Gopalganj district of the state. Locals had consumed a brew made from mahua flowers.

Maharashtra, 2015 – 102 people were killed in Laxmi Nagar slums of Malwani area in Mumbai after having the country liquor called ‘phuga’. The government had ordered a probe into the deaths but a year later, in 2016, little seems to have changed. A News 18 report highlighted how only months after the tragedy occurred, the number of country liquor dens had increased in Mumbai’s suburbs. It was available as usual and vendors were involved in the business in connivance with the administration.

West Bengal, 2011 – Around 170 were killed by toxic alcohol in the state. Seven years later, in November 2018, a court in South 24 Parganas district had convicted four people in connection with this incident. The court had also acquitted six others for lack of evidence. The same month that year, surprisingly, also saw the 12 others dying in Santipur area.

Representational image

Representational image

Gujarat, 2009 – This dry state was jolted by the deaths of more than 136 people from toxic moonshine. Another 276 people were admitted in various hospitals with 100 of them in intensive care units. In a report about the deaths, a source had detailed how the police was a partner in the crime. “Without their support, the bootleggers could not do business. There is a parallel economy worth seven billion dollars, with mafias,” he was quoted saying.

Karnataka-Tamil Nadu, 2008 – These two southern states witnessed the deaths of 180 people due to hooch. While many had complained of stomach pain and vomiting, some had even lost their eyesight in the incident.

Odisha, 1992 – Around 200 died in Cuttack and another 600 were hospitalised in Cuttack in 1992, makng it one of the biggest hooch-related tragedies in India. Some years down the line, in 2012, Cuttack again saw the deaths of  28 people with one more dying in Bhubaneswar.

Karnataka, 1981 – In what could be called one of the one of the biggest tragedies in India, 308 people had died in Bengaluru due to methanol poisoning. An enquiry commission had earlier revealed connection between some politicians and the bootleggers.

Liquor-laced politics

The recent deaths led to a political slugfest with opposition parties blaming ruling BJP governments in both Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand for the tragedy. While the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party blamed the BJP governments in both states, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath said “such mischievous acts” were done by Samajwadi Party leaders in the past too. “In Azamgarh, Hardoi, Kanpur and Barabanki, SP leaders were found to be involved in previous hooch tragedies,” he had told reporters on Saturday.

Meanwhile the party’s ally and BSP chief Mayawati sought a CBI probe into the incident. She accused the Uttar Pradesh government of having knowledge about the “bootleggers running a parallel administration” in the state.

On the other hand, in what seemed to be her first political statement after taking charge as AICC general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra slammed the governments of both Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand over the tragedy.

Alleging “laxity” on part of the government over the hooch tragedy, opposition members on Monday also created ruckus in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly and demanded resignation of Chief Minister Adityanath. It later led to adjournment of the House during Question Hour.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2019 17:38:41 IST

Updated: February 12, 2019 — 12:22 am
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