Hooch tragedies are a damning indictment of state governments. Despite liquor sales being a large revenue source for states, they lack a solid policy framework on regulating the trade and alcoholism-related issues. The other option a robust policing mechanism is anathema to the politician-bootlegger-officer nexus driven by the large profits to be cornered in the illicit arrack trade.
The latest hooch tragedy that has claimed 42 lives in the Mubarakpur area of Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh was waiting to happen. Only a fortnight ago, local police had seized a huge quantity of methyl alcohol, an additive that lends potency to liquor but is extremely poisonous, but did not follow it up with arrests. In what has been commended “as strict action” by Akhilesh Yadav, his government has suspended five officials including the district excise officer. A few suspensions and perhaps, a large number of FIRs and seizures later, things will go back to what they were. Lax officialdom will return, court cases will languish, evidence will disappear and witnesses will turn hostile.
Governments are caught between the imperative of revenue maximisation and a mix of Gandhian, socio-religious and women’s organisations warnings of families ruined by liquor abuse. Many states claim to have struck a fine balance by banning the cheaper arrack and inviting people to drink the comparatively better regulated, but expensive, Indian Made Foreign Liquors (IMFL). With legal options priced over their pockets, the poor view these illicit brews as pennysavers. An arrack ban has been prevalent in the four Southern states as has prohibition in Gujarat for some years now.
Surprisingly, four of these states account for the most deaths caused by hooch tragedies.
Government data for 2009-2011 shows that Tamil Nadu leads with 1,095 deaths, followed by Karnataka with 599 deaths, Punjab and West Bengal with over 400, Gujarat with 396 and Andhra Pradesh with 284 deaths. Not surprisingly, the data shows that hooch becomes an attractive option for the poor when liquor is legally forbidden or IMFL, traditionally more expensive, becomes heavily taxed by these states. In contrast, Goa with low taxes has recorded zero hooch deaths since 2009. Even Kerala, which banned arrack in 1996, admits that much of the toddy sold in licensed shops is adulterated with arrack and other chemicals.
Hooch tragedies are invariably followed by special drives by excise departments to assuage public anger. Excise department in Eastern UP districts will press forward until November 5 to flush out bootleggers. Across India, such drives net some small fish while the sharks lie low. To act as deterrent, Gujarat introduced a draconian provision in 2011 advocating death penalty for those manufacturing spurious liquor. But hooch deaths have continued.
Even the prohibition has failed with IMFL and local brews available to those who love their drinks. But that is no excuse for states to shun their duty. Governments claim that steep levies upon cigarettes and alcohol raise prices and discourages the habit. However, available evidence points to people opting for cheaper, spurious and dangerous alternatives. The least that can be done is cracking down on the dangerous alternatives like methyl alcohol and expanding awareness and rehabilitation schemes.