Last week, at least 136 people died in India’s western city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat after drinking illicit liquor. 250 are still in hospital and the death toll could go up. Deaths from drinking illegally brewed cheap alcohol -- which is known as desi daru and is often spiked with chemicals to increase its potency -- are common in India, where not everybody can afford licensed liquor. There are scores of deaths every year.
A man who consumed hooch in Ahmedabad is taken to hospital on a stretcher
Gujarat, which takes pride in calling itself the birthplace of Gandhi, is the only state in India where the sale and consumption of liquor is banned. This prohibition has been in place since the state was created in 1960 -- it was imposed in deference to Gandhi, who was stridently opposed to liquor consumption.
The ban, however, has led to a proliferation of illegal liquor dens, whose homemade brew is mostly consumed by people with low incomes.
“This is happening because the poorer class cannot afford whisky, scotch and gin,” explained R K Mishra, a senior journalist in Gujarat’s main city Ahmedabad. “A labourer who earns only 100 rupees a day falls back to these seven to 10 rupees for a small glass. This is designed to give a very high kick. It puts them to sleep and they can get back to the grind the next morning. Then it becomes an addiction.”
Police are involved in the hooch business
The most recent tragedy began unfolding last week. Dozens fell sick after drinking sessions over the weekend in Ahmedabad.
Police have since raided and closed down over a thousand liquor dens. However, the police is part of the problem, say critics such as Ajay Umat, the chief editor of Divya Bhaskar, a daily regional newspaper.
“They are not only involved; the police are a partner in this crime. Without their support, the bootleggers could not do business. There is a parallel economy worth seven billion dollars, with mafias.”
Not only in Gujarat
The problem of illegal hooch, which often results in death, is not limited to Gujarat. There have been similar cases in other Indian states where alcohol is not banned -- such as Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Chandigarh -- but where illegal alcohol is cheaper.
Earlier this year, at least 180 people died in the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This was the worst bootleg liquor tragedy India had ever experienced.
No serious steps have been taken by the government to tackle the corrupt business of bootlegging. “There is a familiar routine that successive governments follow. Whenever such a hooch tragedy takes place, they announce a commission of enquiry. There have been many reports -- the reports lie around, gather dust, and nothing comes out of this,” explained Ajay Umat.
The police of Ahmedabad claims it has already identified the mastermind behind the current hooch tragedy that has claimed over 130 lives so far. However, the people who supplied the chemicals that were mixed into the illegal brew are still at large.
Author: Jaisu Bhullar
Editor: Anne Thomas