The Malwani hooch tragedy, which has claimed over a hundred lives in Mumbai, has been overwhelmed by the Lalit Modi controversy, which erupted around the same time. But this must not allow accountability for the debacle to be diminished.
A fair share of the blame has been apportioned to the media for the ‘imbalance’ in the coverage of the two stories. That’s an oft-repeated, but puerile argument. The media works by its own assessment of how the consumers of news react to what’s happening in the environment. By that consideration, the Lalit Modi story gets top billing, like it or not.
But I’ll concede that there can be shortcomings in the pursuit of what is perceived will most likely get the attention of readers/viewers. In my opinion, both these stories were of equal importance though vastly different. But as the law can sometimes be an ass, the assessment of us journalists can sometimes be cock-eyed.
I’ll desist from further self-flagellation because ultimately, controlling crime and other social evils is the responsibility of the machinery that runs the city/state. The media can report, highlight, even investigate, but the onus of maintaining law and order is on those elected or posted to positions of power for this.
What makes the hooch tragedy more acute is that the people who have died were all from the margins of society and mostly the sole breadwinners of their families. That means more than a 100 families, apart from the grief of losing a near one, have now been reduced to utter penury.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has asked for the hooch peddlers to be ‘hanged’. The outrage is justified, but mere hyperbole will not be enough. There has to be a deeper, more thorough study of why spurious liquor trade is still thriving in a state that has no prohibition.
If he does that, the CM might find at least some part of the problem located in the excise duty imposed on alcohol in Maharashtra that has put even country liquor beyond the means of people who can afford only this. Not surprisingly, they will go for something cheaper, even at the risk of life.
To be fair, the current political dispensation in the state did not raise the excise. Much as the Congress has been baying for the CM’s blood after the hooch deaths, it was their ally NCP’s Ajit Pawar, former deputy chief minister, who took this step in the budget he presented in 2011.
Even then, there were serious misgivings that the excise hike would be counterproductive, especially at the lowest strata of society, though the objections were the loudest at the highest.
But Pawar, playing part moral crusader, part financial whiz who would increase the state’s coffers, would brook no opposition.
While the consumption of country liquor did drop marginally (by about 3%) , officials from the excise department (and others) had argued then that the jacking up the excise would lead make spurious liquor manufacturers/sellers thrive as well as encourage smuggling from other states. This is precisely what has happened.
Reviewing the excise on liquor, however will take time. There is need for speedy justice too and the buck stops at two powerful establishments in south Mumbai: Mantralaya, where the state administration operates from, and the police commssionerate at Palton Road from where top cop Rakesh Maria officiates.
The police-politician nexus with hoodlums who were involved in the inter-state (with Gujarat) racket of smuggling methanol has now been clearly established.
Unless local corporators and police are hand-in-glove, such business is impossible to survive. This connivance demands serious and prompt probe and punitive action.
Some suspensions have taken place, but whether this is an eyewash nobody knows. The chief minister of the state and the police commissioner of Mumbai have to convince us that it isn’t.