Why forest landscape provides perfect cover for illicit liquor distillation units in Uttarakhand

Police have been conducting raids from time to time in the forests to bust these illicit liquor distillation units, seize thousands of litres of ‘lahan’ and destroy the same, but these units reappear soon elsewhere in the forests.
Illegal country-made liquor makers continue to make liquor in forest areas of Kumaon and Garhwal regions.(HT Photo)
Illegal country-made liquor makers continue to make liquor in forest areas of Kumaon and Garhwal regions.(HT Photo)
Updated on Sep 26, 2019 02:02 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Dehradun/Haridwar | ByNeeraj Santoshi & Sandeep Rawat, Dehradun/haridwar

Even as Uttarakhand was rocked by three hooch tragedies this year in which 53 people lost their lives, illegal country-made liquor makers continue to make liquor in forest areas of Kumaon and Garhwal regions.

Police have been conducting raids from time to time in the forests to bust these illicit liquor distillation units, seize thousands of litres of ‘lahan’ and destroy the same, but these units reappear soon elsewhere in the forests.

Forest areas, especially around Corbett landscape in Kumaon and in Haridwar district in Garhwal, are the main areas preferred by illicit liquor makers as they generally find a place deep inside the forest where there a water source is handy for use in the fermentation process. Also, these forests provide firewood used in the distillation process in the ‘bhattis’ (makeshift furnaces).

This year, the state has been rocked by three hooch tragedies; one in Haridwar in February that claimed 45 lives, second in Tehri Garhwal in March claimed two lives and the recent one in Dehradun that came to light on Friday and claimed six lives. But despite these tragedies, the illegal liquor making continues.

Illicit liquor making in forests of Kumaon

According to police, forest stretch in Udham Singh Nagar and Nainital districts, especially the forests closer to Corbett, are used by liquor makers as they provide both cover and necessary ingredients like water, firewood for making liquor.

Sunil Kumar Meena, senior superintendent of police (SSP) Nainital, said there was a particular community which has been traditionally making illicit liquor in the forests of Nainital and US Nagar districts. “Illicit liquor is also made in Pithoragarh and Chamoli districts, but there the people make them inside their houses. Here in the forests, they make them in huge drums and on a large scale,” he said.

On why police and authorities are unable to stop them despite regular raids, Meena said: “With the help of forest officials, when we go inside the forests to destroy these illegal liquor making units, within a few weeks, they find another spot to start their illicit liquor making. There is this particular community living here which has been making illicit liquor. They primarily consume it themselves and also supply it to the poor, especially during occasions like marriage and so on.”

On stopping the illicit liquor making business in Kumaon forests, Meena said apart from regular raids and strict action, awareness and education was need to change the mindset of people, regarding how it was ruing their health and economy in the long run.

Police officials, who have been part of raids on the illicit liquor distillation units in forests of Kumaon, said country-made liquor was generally made from the distillation of fermented mash of cereals and sugarcane. Illegal liquor is made in Kumaon forests mainly from jaggery or gurr (jaggery or gurr is obtained by boiling raw, concentrated sugar cane juice till it solidifies) which is readily available in the nearby markets.

Illicit liquor making in forests of Garhwal

In the Garhwal region, the illicit liquor makers use forests of Haridwar district, especially in the Laksar area. Despite liquor consumption and sale prohibited in Haridwar municipal limits, in its outskirts and forests areas of the district, illegal liquor manufacturing and availability is not a surprise.

The February hooch tragedy in Bhagwanpur block of Haridwar that claimed 45 lives had exposed the wide nexus of the illegal country-made liquor mafia’s roots in the district which had links with the bordering western districts of Saharanpur and Muzaffarnagar of Uttar Pradesh.

Post the tragedy police had made a crackdown on illegal manufacturers and suppliers with more than fifty people involved in this business arrested and dozens of distilleries were destroyed. But within a few months again in Bhagwanpur, Jhabreda, Khanpur, Laksar, Pathri, Shyampur areas, country-made liquor trade started flourishing again.

Forests area in Laksar, 38 km from Haridwar, has become the main hub of illegal liquor making with regular distilleries being set up there. While post-February hooch tragedy police had destroyed a majority of them, local villagers and anti-liquor activists claim, half a dozen units have again started operating, though this time in denser and deep forest areas.

Circle officer Laksar Laksar Rajan Singh said intense drive was being carried out in the forest areas and on Monday three people with illicit country-made liquor were arrested.

Excise inspector Laxman Singh Bisht said as illegal liquor mafia nexus has deep roots, joint operations with police were being carried out regularly to destroy such units in the forests areas. Also, as per district excise office data, about 40,000 litre of liquor has been recovered and seized from across the district in the past three years.

In Haridwar’s Khanpur, where illegal distilleries are reported to be operating in many areas, suppliers, to avoid police eyes, either resort to bullock carts or milk ferrying two-wheelers to supply the liquor.

Police are now checking these carts and milk suppliers’ vehicles too and swiftly raiding the units from where they are being supplied as per revelations made by the arrested persons.

Surprisingly involvement of women in this illicit liquor trade has also come to light in Garhwal region. Within the past few years alone about 15 women have been arrested by police from Haridwar alone.

Senthil Avoodai Krishnaraj, senior superintendent of Police, Haridwar said, “I have given stern directives to all the station house officers to carry out raids on illegal liquor making units as well as identify the people involved in this illegal trade. People who adulterate the liquor with chemicals are being identified and monitoring is being done of those having a previous criminal record in the liquor trade. Beat constable inspection and intelligence gathering have been beefed up while night patrolling and vehicle checking is being done on a regular basis, he said.

What the government has to say

Cabinet minister and government spokesperson Madan Kaushik said the state government was not promoting liquor in any way. “Instead, we are generating awareness about its ill effects. Our objective is to make the excise policy effective, rein in the illegal liquor trade as it is hurting the state exchequer and thereby revenue. When it comes to liquor prohibition, it is in effect in Haridwar civic area and administration is keeping a tab on people indulging in illegal liquor trade in non-prohibited areas of the district.”

BOX: How illicit liquor is made in Uttarakhand forests

First, the illegal liquor makers dig a pit and put a big black polythene or big containers, in which jaggery and water mixed. This is called ‘lahan’.

Then these containers or polythene lines pits are covered for five to six days so that the fermentation process takes place and an alcoholic distillate is obtained from the fermented jaggery

Once the fermentation process is over, the fermented liquid is put in drums.

Then firewood is placed under these drums. A pipe from the upper part of the drum is placed in such a way that it moves through the water.

When the vapours from the fermented liquid moves through the pipe that passes through water, the vapours precipitate.

There is a container at the other side of the pipe which collects this precipitated liquid which is country-made liquor.

When the fermented liquid is heated, ethanol (alcohol) vaporises at 78.5 degrees, while water that is left behind vaporises at 100 degrees.

The ethanol gas is caught in pipes and cooled so it condenses into a stronger concentration of ethanol liquid or country-made liquor.

Fermentation means the microbial conversion of carbohydrates or sugars present in agricultural products like jaggery to ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide using yeasts (preferably the yeast variety Saccharomyces cerevisiae), bacteria, or their combination under anaerobic (oxygen-less) conditions.

BOX: Why illicit liquor makers prefer forests?

Dense forests provide them with good cover to hide their illegal activity.

If the police raid and destroy one unit, the liquor makers find another site in the forests.

There are many water sources like forest streams and other water bodies in these forests that become handy for the fermentation process, which requires a lot of water.

Forests also provide firewood used in the distillation process in the ‘bhattis’ (makeshift furnaces).

Given the proximity to Uttar Pradesh, the illicit liquor is also smuggled to UP, besides being supplied locally in US Nagar, Almora and Nainital districts.

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