In Tamil Nadu, where people who cannot afford expensive IMFL turn to dangerous bootleg alcohol - Hindustan Times
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In Tamil Nadu, where people who cannot afford expensive IMFL turn to dangerous bootleg alcohol

Jun 23, 2024 12:00 AM IST

In February this year, the M K Stalin-led DMK government increased the price of IMFL available through the state-owned distribution network TASMAC.

With the death toll rising to 51 by Saturday morning after 14 more people under treatment in different hospitals died, the Kallakurichi hooch tragedy in Tamil Nadu raises disturbing questions about the growing preference for cheap and toxic alcohol.

Relatives mourn near the mortal remains of people who died after consuming spurious liquor in Kallakurichi in Tamil Nadu on Friday. (PTI)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Relatives mourn near the mortal remains of people who died after consuming spurious liquor in Kallakurichi in Tamil Nadu on Friday. (PTI)(HT_PRINT)

Relatives confirmed that the victims preferred the cheap and risky alternative in the face of government-imposed heavy taxes, which make Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) expensive across the state.

The victims included five women and a transgender person; 135 others are still battling for life at different hospitals, making it one of the worst hooch tragedies in the country. Almost all victims were daily wage workers from Karunapuram, a suburb of Kallakurichi town, and autopsies confirmed the tragedy as the after-effect of consuming hooch laced with methanol.

Going by the preliminary findings of the police and excise departments, the incident was similar to the 2023 hooch tragedy that killed over 30 people in Marakkanam in Villupuram district and Madhuranthakam in the adjoining Chengapattu district.

There is rampant manufacturing of toxic alcohol using industrial methanol as an alternative to expensive IMFL across the state, activists said.

While the state government still feigns ignorance over bootleggers' easy sourcing of industrial methanol, police officers, who did not wish to be named, confirmed that it is cheap and easily available in the adjacent union territory of Puducherry.

The three people arrested in connection with the Karunapuram tragedy disclosed that it would be easier to smuggle out the industrial methanol from Puducherry than the cheap IMFL brands available, thereby avoiding the checking by excise and prohibition officials.

In February this year, the M K Stalin-led DMK government increased the price of IMFL available through the state-owned distribution network TASMAC. The state government, which maintains TASMAC as the sole liquor retail agency, considers it the major revenue source.

According to K Arumugam, a relative of Suresh and Praveen, who died in the Kallakurichi tragedy, the unaffordable price of IMFL is the biggest reason for the easy availability of cheap hooch in the state.

N B Veerasami, a social activist, said most of the dead were from economically and socially weaker segments of the Dalit community.

Located close to the combined court complex of Kallakurichi district and the local police station, Karunapuram is a major Dalit habitation, housing around 10,000 people. Most of them work as daily labourers such as load handlers, painters and plumbers.

"A 150 ml sachet of the illicit brew is available for hardly 60 while the same stuff is priced at the TASMAC at 180," said P Kumar, a resident.

"The area where the illicit liquor was sold is barely 500 metres from the local police station and close to the district integrated court complex and a few government offices. However, the sale of illicit liquor has thrived here for long without any preventive measures," said Veerasami

"Cheap illicit brewing is thriving across the state, mainly in semi-urban and rural areas. It exposes the rural reality of Tamil Nadu. The government says it increases liquor prices to give subsidies and welfare pensions. But it risks the health and financial security of the poor in the whole process by neglecting the harsh realities around," said Madurai-based lawyer and human rights activist Henry Tiphagne.

Across Tamil Nadu, hill areas and forest regions are now turning into brewing hubs for toxic liquor alternatives.

Despite being the government's main income generator, TASMAC has become a symbol of corruption, mismanagement, and exploitation over the years. An alleged nexus of politician-owned distilleries and TASMAC is also complicating the regulation of alcohol supply in the state.

Over 5,000 agency outlets across the state are infamous for charging 2 per cent more than the MRP, amounting to at least s 8,000 crores in bulk from buyers without mentioning it in the bill.

"Methanol is a toxic industrial chemical, and the state has legal means to monitor its sale. It is, hence, surprising that despite illicit brew deaths in 2023, where methanol was the culprit, the state has shown laxity in preventing the abuse of this industrial chemical. It has been brought under the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act, 1937, since 2002," said C Lakshmanan, a former Madras Institute of Development Studies faculty member.

It has been 86 years since the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act first came into existence as the first such an effort across India. However, prohibition has not been implemented in Tamil Nadu although opposition parties have demanded it following the Kallakurichi incident. While in power in Tamil Nadu, politicians of all affiliations justify the sale of liquor by stating that the revenue generated through heavy liquor taxation is utilised to support social welfare schemes, contributing to a strong social index for the state. They raise prohibition demands only while in opposition.

Activist M. Idiyanarayanan, a Chennai-based Gandhian, argues that it is incorrect to sell liquor and make a profit by heavily taxing consumers and using this money for welfare schemes. He believes welfare is a state matter, and its funds should not be sourced from liquor sales. He urges policymakers to explore alternative means of raising funds, stating that liquor is detrimental and the government should avoid funding welfare programmes through its sale, as it creates discord in society.

But Veerasami is more practical: "The government must at least subsidise some popular brands, as that would dissuade daily drinkers from going behind bootleggers.''

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