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Drinking from a poisoned chalice

There is a frightening sense of déjà vu about it. A vulnerable and deprived locality, unscrupulous vendors out to make a quick buck and a law-enforcement system that is in cahoots with the culprits.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2009 20:41 IST

There is a frightening sense of déjà vu about it. A vulnerable and deprived locality, unscrupulous vendors out to make a quick buck and a law-enforcement system that is in cahoots with the culprits. The result: 40 deaths over the last fortnight, first in the south-west area of Dabri and then in west Delhi’s Raghubir Nagar where over 16 people have perished in the last few days after consuming poisonous liquor.

The Delhi government has niftly passed the buck onto the police. It has also sought to increase the number of licensed liquor vends. But it must be asked what the authorities concerned were doing while these spurious vends were plying their trade. After all, they did not spring up overnight. There is nothing to suggest that an increase in legal vends will prevent the sale of illicit liquor. The latter is cheaper and available round the clock. With elections round the corner, there should have been greater vigilance to ensure that vested political interests do not facilitate the setting up of illegal vends. Only one woman has been arrested so far and no convincing action has been taken against the prime suspects, who, residents of the area allege, are repeat offenders being shielded by the police, which is hand-in-glove with the bootleggers. One of the reasons why such tragedies recur frequently is that there is a network of brewers and vendors of cheap liquor that has been pushed underground by selective crackdowns, spawning a thriving black market. There is no doubt that there is some level of collusion with the police. Various sting operations in previous years have exposed the police-administration-bootlegger nexus and the police are already under the scanner after a 2005 case in which policemen were caught accepting bribes from bootleggers in Dabri.

The local residents are justifiably up in arms at the official apathy that follows such tragedies. So far, the maximum charge a bootlegger has faced is culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Not surprisingly, convictions are few and far between. The Delhi government’s plea that it is waiting for the Centre to clear a new excise bill that would make it easier to act against bootleggers is not good enough. This cavalier attitude suggests that for officialdom, the lives of the poor are cheap and that they are not entitled to any accountability.