Rising demand for hooch during elections, used to influence voters, increases risk of more spurious liquor-related deaths

Saurabh Sharma | Mar 10, 2019 | 7 min read


Does the demand for hooch become higher during elections? Is the current crackdown coming at an inconvenient time for both manufacturers and politicians? - please address this. It is needed to give this story an election angle.

One second look, I think we are missing a great opportunity here to address rural alcoholism. Bihar's prohibition has popular support among rural women. In Karnataka women from villages and small town took out a rally recently demanding prohibition. Have traditional and natural sources of intoxication disappeared? How difficult is it to treat addiction in the villages? what kind of problems do families of the addicts face? Something to think about while reworking the story.

By Rohit Ghosh

 Country made illegal hooch killed at least 12 people in the villages of the twin districts of Kanpur and Kanpur Dehat in May, 2018. Police action was swift. Over 100 people were arrested and thousands of litres of hooch and chemicals seized and destroyed. But that proved no deterrent to the illegal hooch makers. Reports of deaths in Saharanpur from drinking hooch brought the police once again to the villages in Kanpur and Kanpur Dehat. They found moonshine being brewed in at least half a dozen villages. Seven women were among the15 persons arrested, while around 5000 litres of liquor and chemicals were seized. Several sealed vats of hooch had been buried so deep that police had to use excavators to bring them out and destroy them.

“The deaths in Saharanpur alerted us. But we would have stepped up our vigil as elections are approaching,” said Anant Deo, senior superintendent of police (SSP), Kanpur. “Manufacture and sale of hooch rise during elections,” he said.

It is a known fact that alcohol in India is used to influence voters during elections. And for this very reason, the Election Commission of India has clearly mentioned in its model code of conduct ‘No alcohol should be distributed during elections.’

On the orders of the election commission of India, liquor shops close 48 hours before voting begins.

“It may be possible that bootleggers had become active as elections are approaching,” said Anant Deo.

There are three types of alcoholic drinks available in India. One is Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL), the second is the cheap liquor manufactured legally and the last one is what is brewed locally. It is locally brewed or the country made liquor that is proving to be fatal time and again in Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring states. Despite being illegal, brewing and selling of country made liquor is widespread in Uttar Pradesh. In the past few weeks alone, 116 people have died in different parts of UP and neighbouring Uttarakhand.

Police and excise officials say it is easy to keep a tab on the sale of liquor in cities but not in far-flung rural villages and hamlets.

“We take quick action but then there are issues like connectivity and remoteness,” said the SSP.

People in India have a long history of consuming locally brewed alcoholic drinks like mahua, tadi or salfi. But excise laws came into force and India gained independence and local brewing of alcohol was declared illegal.

Robby Sharma, a social activist and lawyer based in Kanpur, said illegal brewing of hooch is hard to check. “The government has hiked prices of alcohol so much that poor people start looking for alternatives which causes the hooch tragedies” said Sharma. Mostly in rural areas, where legal liquor is either not available or too expensive for the villagers to afford. “A person living in a village can’t afford to buy a bottle of alcohol that costs Rs 500. But he can buy a quarter bottle of hooch for Rs 50.”

Sharma’s solution to this problem is to legalise making of hooch and giving it the status of a cottage industry. “A tribe named Kalal has been making toxic drinks for centuries,” said Sharma. “So why not allow people in villages to make small quantities of alcohol? The excise department can check the alcohol before it is sold. In this way, hooch tragedies can be checked.”

The people who make the hooch do not follow any rules while making it, said Abhimanyu Singh, district excise officer of Kanpur who has conducted several raids in villages around Kanpur. “They use anything and everything available at hand to make the base. Generally, it is rotten fruit and water,” he added. “To this base is added yeast to make it fizzy and it is left in a vat for fermentation. The fermented liquid is distilled to which they add methyl alcohol, which is cheaper than the safer ethyl alcohol to make it toxic. Everything is done in an ad hoc manner and you never know when a bottle will prove fatal”.

According to Singh, methyl alcohol is easily available as it is used in several industries. “Methyl alcohol is cheaper compared to ethyl alcohol. Their prices vary depending upon their concentration. But generally a litre of ethyl alcohol costs around Rs 40 per litre. The cost of methyl alcohol is almost the half,” Singh said.

The price difference between a litre of methyl and ethyl alcohol may be just Rs 20 but the former kills in scores.

Sunita Omaahi Kala village in Saharanpur knew her husband Pintoo Kumar was into making and selling hooch. But she never imagined that one day it would kill all the male earning members of her joint family.

“My husband drank alcohol and vomited a couple of times and fainted,” said Sunita. Pintoo was rushed to hospital but did not survive. And at the ceremony to mourn Pintoo’s death, the mourners were served locally brewed hooch. Pintoo’s father and brother, and five other fellow villagers, died that day from alcohol poisoning.

Vipin, one of mourners, considers himself a lucky survivor though he lost his eyesight. “I can’t see anything,” he said in slurry voice, and now fears he may lose his voice as well.

Activist Sharma echoed the excise officer’s words. “The hooch makers can’t leave the vats for long periods for natural fermentation because of the risk of police raids. So to make alcohol quickly, they add chemicals which are unfit for human consumption which then claims lives”.

But if the government allows the same person to manufacture alcohol in small quantities, “he won’t use poisonous substances like methyl alcohol or urea in the brewing process,” Sharma argues. “Why not set up cooperatives at the village level and make alcohol available to the people at a cheap price if total prohibition is not an option?”

Hari Shankar Shukla, a senior excise officer, told 101reporters that his department officials were always on their toes and to keep a check on illegal manufacturing of alcohol.  “In the recent past, we have booked about 3000 people and confiscated 80,000 litres of illegally brewed alcohol,” Shukla said. “We have taken the tragedy in Saharanpur very seriously and we are keeping vigil in the villages”.

The district senior superintendent of police Dinesh Kumar added that those arrested “are booked under different sections of the Excise Act and produced in court. Then it is up to the courts to decide”.

But a former director general of Uttar Pradesh police said checking brewing of moonshine is very difficult given the vastness of Uttar Pradesh. “Its district are sprawling,” he said. “Take Unnao district. Its boundary is some 150 kms long. And what is the strength of the excise department of Unnao, 25, at most. And what resources do they have? How can 25 people keep a vigil on each and every village of Unnao?”

He also felt total prohibition cannot be the solution citing the experience of Bihar, which has been made a dry state, as an example. “People there are now getting addicted to drugs which is a more dangerous situation. In any case, alcohol is freely available in the state. Recently, a truck filled with bottles of alcohol was seized on the UP-Bihar border”.

People can’t be forcibly stopped from drinking but governments should try to make aware people aware about the ills of alcohol, he added.

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