A well-organised and mutually beneficial nexus among owners of illegal breweries, politicians and the local administration, along with a demand for affordable liquor make for a lethal concoction that can kill hundreds of drinkers in one go. And it has. On the night of December 13 in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district, more than 150 people died of poisoning after consuming spurious liquor. More than two years after 136 people died in Ahmedabad after consuming poisonous hooch, it’s another round of pointless tragedy.
India’s localised brews — mahua, toddy, feni and arrack — are not more harmful than any other spirits and neither are they illegal. But when toxins such as methyl alcohol are added to them — for the sole purpose of making the drink ‘stronger’ and cutting costs — without any system of quality control, these beverages slip into the illicit category. That the threat is real is borne out by the fact that two-thirds of alcohol consumed in India is hooch and more than half of drinks falling into this category come under the spurious drink zone.
While the hunt is on for the manufacturers of the illicit liquor business responsible for the horrors in Bengal this week, it’s necessary to realise that they are just small cogs in a much larger criminal wheel. To run this well-oiled racket, manufacturers and distributors of spurious liquor get support from the very same people who are supposed to stop such activities.
Therefore, it was no real surprise to know that after the death toll started mounting, locals ransacked illegal liquor vends that were there opposite a police camp near the Sangrampur railway station. They accused the policemen of being hand-in-glove with the vend-owners. In fact, the kingpin of the alcohol operations that caused the deaths reportedly has ‘connections’ with both the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress. Therefore, the state government, now in the hands of the latter, cannot simply pass on the buck to its predecessor.
India has had such cases of horror before and cases in which states have, indeed, taken strong action. In Kerala, raids have led to the shutdown of illegal toddy shops, while earlier this month, Gujarat, a state with prohibition in place for decades, introduced the death penalty for makers of toxic alcohol. While no one is advocating Gujarat-style prohibition — which can drive harmless tipplers towards alcohol that has no quality control whatsoever and, therefore, is incentivised to be mixed with cheap, lethal methyl alcohol — states must undertake raids and surprise inspections of local breweries. While liquor vends maintain some kind of standard, local breweries don’t have such ‘restraints’. Instead of discouraging all local breweries, let the government encourage such institutions which refrain from resorting to adding poison to make a quick buck.