In a country where human life comes cheap, the death of more than 90 people over the span of a few days hardly makes great news. Especially if they are poor, daily-wage earners dying after drinking poisonous country liquor. Why should we bother with faceless, nameless drunkards? Just as a Bollywood singer argued recently that those sleeping on the roads deserved to be run over like dogs, so would many of us find it apt that a bunch of poor labourers, some of them sole breadwinners of their family, deserves to die for drinking illicit spurious liquor.
We are talking about last week's
in which 97 people have been killed and scores more continue to fight for their lives in government hospitals after drinking toxic moonshine in Mumbai's Malad suburb.
These men are not deserving of our sympathy, for they are no movers and shakers nor even members of our moralising middle class but wretched beings living on the margins of our society who, after a day's back-breaking work, seek a little solace in glasses of cheap country-made liquor. They are no Bollywood stars nor high-profile advocates who get drunk on $100-a-bottle scotch and then mow down pavement dwellers or crash other vehicles, snuffing out human lives, triggering highly polarized television debates.
They are men with their myriad tribulations of an unequal world to which we cannot relate with sympathy.
So, the story of Hari, one of the many labourers killed after drinking the toxic alcohol, doesn't make it to prime time news. He lived in a 10x10 shanty with his wife Pinky and their 1-year-old daughter. "I will kill myself. Who will take care of my daughter? The person who sits to a dead body of a beloved can only understand what I'm going through. I will kill myself," Pinky was quoted as saying by the DNA newspaper. Every death from that dingy, dark Malad watering hole has a similar tale of families going asunder.
Every year, across the country, people are killed by spurious alcohol. In 2013, as many as 40 people were killed in Uttar Pradesh's Azamgarh district. Two years before that, consumption of spurious liquor had killed at least 150 people in a village in West Bengal. In rural Karnataka 180 people were killed after drinking illicitly brewed alcohol in 2008. Just like the victims in Malad, the people who died in West Bengal and Karnataka were labourers, rickshaw-pullers and hawkers trying to drown the sorrow of their dreary existence in a glass of toddy.
To understand why the poor risk their lives for a drink, let's look at the economics of country liquor and toddy. In Maharashtra, the government rate for legal country liquor is Rs 45 for an 180ml bottle, but, reportedly, in the Malwani slum in Malad, locals can buy an illicit bottle of hooch for as little as Rs 20. To retain their margins and enhance taste bootleggers mix methyl alcohol, or methanol, and ammonium nitrate in the drink, which can turn toxic.
Illicit liquor businesses flourish because of weak laws, weaker infrastructure to probe cases of bootlegging and a lack of political will to tackle the problem because alcohol is an assured sources of revenue for the government. Complicity of police, government officials and their nexus with bootleggers has been pointed out often after moonshine deaths.
Anyway, to come back to the poor who have to risk death for a drink -- is there a case in their defence? Legally, there is. The alcohol market is much regulated and the government issues licenses to toddy and country liquor shops and earns huge revenue from them. This also makes the government responsible for ensuring quality and safety standards even for the cheapest variety.
All this makes one wonder what the reaction of our class-conscious society and media, which react to every worm in its milk powder and chemical in its noodles, would be were a hundred well-heeled people to die after drinking spurious Indian made foreign liquour . Would they too be shamed for drinking?
(Views expressed are personal. The writer tweets as @saha_abhi1990)