It’s a familiar enough story: a few poor wage labourers die from consuming poisonous liquor in a faraway village; pictures of weeping women make a fleeting appearance across national dailies and we talk about the perils of dodgy drinks. It’s easy to scoff at those risking their livelihood, families and lives for the sake of their daily high while sitting in the comfort of our homes, sipping a woodsy single malt.
As the toll continues to mount in one of the worst spurious liquor tragedies, spanning Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, there are a number of issues that deserve attention, beginning with the nature and consequences of illicit liquor brewing. Illegally brewed alcohol in itself is not a cause of the temporary or permanent blindness reported in many victims, nor is it a certain cause of death in most cases. Instead, the primary culprit is a deadly mix of toxins — cheap, readily available substitutes to traditional natural ingredients that have been used by generations of local brewers.
As the blame-game begins, allegations are flying thick and fast. While some have blamed the withdrawal of a few licences of bars and wine shops in Karnataka, following the first phase of elections, the other knot of allegations doing the rounds refers to the distribution of free liquor by rival party cadres. Add to this the ban on the sale of cheap and readily available arrack at the end of yet another harvesting season, a time when many are willing to splurge on their daily tipple, and it is a deadly mix of circumstances. But the roots of the problem lie deeper.
Tharra, arrack, mahua and tadi madi are all colloquial avatars of country liquor, with hooch mostly referring to moonshine. Recognising the popularity and business potential of the local cashew apple brew, even as Goa prepares to take its feni to distant shores, governments in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have enforced bans on the sale of arrack, with Tamil Nadu going as far as to ban centuries-old toddy tapping altogether.
Although aimed at curtailing the spurious liquor industry, this partial prohibition policy has had the opposite effect, creating a network of clandestine brewers, hand-in-glove with the police and administration, quenching the ever-increasing demand for cheap, potent and locally available brews. Our much-feted Indian ingenuity has created an underground network of crude brewing units, using discarded car radiators and old gas tubes, to cater to a growing demand for cheap alcohol.
These crude brewing devices often contain remnants of anti-freeze and chemicals like propylene glycol, which can be highly poisonous, leading to a painful death. This crude distillation process frequently produces liquor with a higher content of untreated or low quality alcohol, providing an instant kick. Increased potencies are achieved by adding tree bark to supplement the already giddy mix of rotting coconut leaves, jaggery and a cocktail of cheaply accessible industrial additives.
Also, state crackdowns have taken the business away from traditional toddy brewers, families with generations of experience in brewing liquor from natural ingredients. In their place, shoddy producers are contributing to the mounting body bags by discarding the age-old patience of brewers for quicker profits. Ancient processes are being abandoned and relentless demand is pushing the liquor trade underground, spawning a thriving black market propped up by swelling sales of even darker brews.
According to estimates by the All India Distillers Association, in 2007-08 the requirement for country liquor in the potable alcohol market was 863 million litres, as against 454 million litres for IMFL. The demand for country liquor, in fact, has continued to be almost double that of IMFL. With the crackdown on the sale of country liquor and its local brewers in some states, it is the IMFL lobby that can be heard cheering the loudest. The liquor market being a highly cost-sensitive one, rising alcohol prices have fired the quest for the highest possible high at a competitive price. It is this simple logic that dictates the clandestine liquor market.
The liquor industry is one in which inputs are not controlled, based on free market price, but where the state excise department mostly controls the output or selling price. Prohibition has been discarded as an option by most states, with the alcohol industry bringing in the second largest excise revenue. With increasing pressure from women’s groups and the rising incidence of alcoholism and lifestyle related diseases, state governments are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of morality and spiralling profits.
Women have been in the forefront of the agitation against the liquor industry, bearing the brunt of the socio-economic costs of steadily increasing alcohol consumption. For years now, women’s groups have been debating a uniform liquor policy — but most now admit that it is likely to remain a pipe dream, given the vagaries of the tax regime, and the fact that each state charts its own course. All India Democratic Women’s Association vice-President Brinda Karat admits that past experience has shown that regulation is better than prohibition, as the latter only drags the business underground.
As India moves up the chart of alcohol-consuming nations, a kind of liquor apartheid exists, with a proliferation of duty-free shops and state-approved outlets stocking luxury alcohol riding high on declining legal options to those seeking cheaper alternatives. Standards exist for most categories of spirits, but there is no one watching the deep, simmering pits in faraway fields or the hissing contraptions in dark huts, waiting to claim their next victims.