Analysing the hooch tragedy

Monday, 26 October 2020



Analysing the hooch tragedy

Dr Navanil Barua | March 02, 2019 11:18 hrs

As the number of deaths increases, the magnitude of this humongous tragedy unfolds. With that, the reactions get sharper. On social and other media, the reactions and demands are like: Excise minister should resign. Alcohol should be banned in Assam. Government must own responsibility and pay compensation. Why pay compensation to drunkards? How can people make fun of deceased by calling them drunkards? Government is earning huge revenues and letting people die. The incident is a conspiracy against the government. Tea tribes are different kind of people (sic)! Etc etc etc! 
Unfortunately, I see very few getting to the root of the problem or the real magnitude of the tragedy. Let me analyse the issue.

There seems to be a rather clouded picture of what type of alcohol the victims consumed. Essentially, there are four types of alcohol available for consumption in Assam. One is the typical IMFL and imported stuff sold in innumerable wine shops. Second, the home brews like Sai Mod, Apong etc which are essentially rice brews. Third, the Assam Excise brews sold in pouches and bottles by registered mahaldars. They are essentially crude rum and popularly known as country liquor. These three varieties are legal. Another cheap, illegal variety available all over the state is called 'gela', 'sulai' etc. It’s essentially a crude whiskey made from decomposed jaggery (lali gur) and converted to alcohol. To expedite the process, they add battery water (sulphuric acid) which when, in dangerous quantities , cause poisoning. The government earns no revenue from these illegal outlets. The Golaghat and Titabor victims consumed this variety of illegal hooch. 

To understand the real picture the pattern needs to be studied. These hooch victims were affected on the same day across two different districts. I can safely assume that none of the deceased were first time drinkers of the stuff or in those particular outlets. Nor it can be a huge coincidence that all these outlets made their hooch separately and by sheer bad luck all became poisonous at the same time, same day. It is evident that the hooch came from a common manufacturing unit or common ingredients. That also indicates that a syndicate/cartel exists which runs the smooth yet illegal operations of making, wholesaling and retailing illegal hooch across at least two districts in upper Assam. Now, how could this happen unless it is a well oiled machine? Already, three non-Assamese names who allegedly are the kingpins of this business are in the media. First question is how is it possible for these non-Assamese run illegal businesses to be flourishing in the Assamese heartland? How come law hasn't even accessed them more than 2 days into the tragedy? 
Secondly, why did the victims take such liquor when legal stuff is available? The fact is, sulai being revenue free, is cheaper than the other legal alternatives. All these consumers were from the lower economic strata and they needed alcohol in quantities enough to get drunk. Also, since no licenses are needed, these illegal outlets are more in number and one need not go too far to find them.

Thirdly, should government pay compensation? It’s a difficult question to answer. Collectively, it’s a government failure that such outlets existed, so a liability exists. However, it’s also correct that the victims wilfully became a part of an illegal exercise. So should they deserve sympathy? My take on the point is that the money is not the answer. The government should identify the families whose bread-earners have been lost. It then should provide sustenance to such families.

Would banning of alcohol provide any solution? I am of the firm belief that no knee-jerk solution like this can be farther from the solution! Prohibition has never worked anywhere in the world including USA. Rather, it gave birth to mafia in US. Let’s take the case studies of Bihar, Mizoram, Nagaland etc. Biharis go to UP, Nagas and Mizos come to Assam to enjoy the pleasures of alcohol. Alcohol is as old as humanity. For every irresponsible drunk in the world, there must be one lakh aficionados who drink in moderation, responsibly and taking pleasure out of it. Prohibition affects that one lakh rather than the single drunk who would anyway drink whatever is available for him. Moreover, any government needs revenue to do public works and pay salaries. Who would make up for that shortfall of the already embattled Assam government? 

I also cannot believe that it is a conspiracy to defame the state government. For those who believe in that must also be also believing that Pulwama was an engineered attack to gain pre-poll sympathy for the government!

Another very disturbing narrative is that tea tribes are uneducated, backward, irresponsible drunkards! For Christ’s sake, do not demean a community as if they are from a different planet. It shows your racial attitude. The majority of the dead may have been from the tea tribes but not all are from tea tribes! And not all tea garden workers or descendants are uneducated, drunkards or imbeciles. 

Now, where does the solution lie? Let’s discuss this in the second part of this article next week.

(The author is a neuro-surgeon by profession and a socio-political activist by choice)

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