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Kushinagar: Country-made illegal hooch killed at least 12 people in the villages of the twin districts of Kanpur and Kanpur Dehat in Uttar Pradesh in May 2018. Police action was swift. Over 100 people were arrested and thousands of litres of hooch and chemicals were seized and destroyed. But that didn't deter the hooch manufacturers, who always seem to reemerge once the dust has settled.
The news of over 100 hooch-related deaths in early February this year in Saharanpur, Kushinagar and Haridwar brought the police to villages in Kanpur and Kanpur Dehat once again. They found moonshine being brewed in at least half a dozen villages. Seven women were among the 15 persons arrested in the initial days of the investigation, and around 5,000 litres of liquor and chemicals were seized. The police found several sealed vats of hooch buried so deep that they had to use excavators to dig them out and destroy them. Eventually, over 3,000 people were arrested and 80,000 litres of spurious liquor seized.
"The deaths in Saharanpur alerted us. But we would have stepped up our vigil anyway as elections are approaching," said Anant Deo, Kanpur's Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP).
It is a known fact that alcohol in India is used to influence voters during elections, and the manufacture and sale of hooch rises ahead of polls. For this very reason, the Election Commission of India clearly mentions in its Model Code of Conduct that 'no alcohol should be distributed during elections'. On the orders of the Election Commission, liquor shops close 48 hours before voting begins.
"It may be possible that bootleggers had become active as elections are approaching," Deo said.
There are three types of alcoholic drinks available in India. One is Indian-made foreign liquor; the second is the cheap liquor manufactured legally; and the last one is what is brewed locally. It is this locally brewed, or country-made, liquor that is proving to be fatal time and again in Uttar Pradesh and its neighbouring states. Despite being illegal, country-made liquor is widely brewed and sold in Uttar Pradesh, and the cycle of deaths, crackdowns and return to status quo continues.
Hooch tragedies in recent years
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," the SSP said.
Indians have a long history of consuming locally-brewed alcoholic drinks like mahua, toddy and salfi. But excise laws came into force after Independence and it was declared illegal to brew alcohol locally.
Robby Sharma, a social activist and lawyer based in Kanpur, said it was hard to keep a check on hooch being brewed illegally.
"The government has hiked the prices of alcohol so much that the poor have started looking for alternatives, which causes these hooch tragedies," he explained, adding that this was mostly in rural areas, where legal liquor is either unavailable or too expensive and unaffordable for villagers. "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 legalising making of hooch and giving it the status of a cottage industry.
"A tribe named Kalal has been making toxic drinks for centuries," he said. "So why not allow people in villages to make small quantities of alcohol? The excise department can check the alcohol before it is sold. This way, hooch tragedies can be checked."
The people who make hooch don't follow any rules while manufacturing the alcohol, said Abhimanyu Singh, district excise officer of Kanpur who has conducted several raids in villages around the city.
"They use anything and everything available at hand to make the base. Generally, it is a rotten fruit and water," he added. "To this base, they add yeast to make it fizzy and then leave it in a vat to ferment. They distill the fermented liquid and then 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."
Singh pointed out that methyl alcohol is easily available as it is used in several industries.
"Methyl alcohol is cheaper than ethyl alcohol. Their prices vary depending on their concentration, but a litre of ethyl alcohol usually costs around Rs 40. The cost of methyl alcohol is nearly half that amount," he explained.
The difference in the prices may be just Rs 20, but methyl alcohol kills in scores.
Sunita Omaahi Kala from a village in Saharanpur knew that her husband Pintoo Kumar was into making and selling hooch. But she never imagined that a day would come when this very hooch would kill all the male breadwinners of her joint family.
"My husband drank the alcohol and vomited a couple of times and fainted," she said, adding that Pintoo was rushed to a hospital but did not survive.
The people at the ceremony to mourn Pintoo's death were served locally-brewed hooch. The same day, his father, brother and five other villagers died of alcohol poisoning.
Vipin, one of mourners, considers himself a lucky survivor even though he lost his eyesight after drinking the liquor. "I can't see anything," he said in slurry voice, adding that he fears he may lose his voice, as well.
Activist Sharma echoed the excise officer's words.
"Hooch makers can't leave the liquor in vats to ferment for long because of the risk of police raids. So to make the alcohol quickly, they add chemicals to the mix that are unfit for human consumption and could be fatal," he explained.
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 to brew it quickly", he added. "Why not set up cooperatives at the village level and make alcohol available to people at a cheap price, if total prohibition is not an option?"
Hari Shankar Shukla, a senior excise officer, said officials of his department were always on their toes to keep a check on illegal manufacturing of alcohol.
"Since the tragedy in February, we have booked around 3,000 people and confiscated 80,000 litres of illegally-brewed alcohol," Shukla said. "We have taken the tragedy in Saharanpur very seriously and are keeping a vigil in the villages."
The district Senior Superintendent of Police, Dinesh Kumar, added that those arrested "had been booked under various sections of the Excise Act and produced in court". "It is up to the courts to decide now," he said.
However, a former director general of Uttar Pradesh police said checking the brewing of moonshine was very difficult, given how vast the state is.
"Its district are sprawling," he said. "Take Unnao district, for example. Its boundary is some 150 kilometres long. And what is the strength of the excise department of Unnao? Twenty-five at most. And what resources do they have? How can 25 people keep a vigil on each and every village in Unnao?"
He also believes that total prohibition is not the solution, citing the experience of dry state Bihar as an example.
"People there are now getting addicted to drugs, which is an even more dangerous situation. In any case, alcohol is freely available in the state. Recently, a truck filled with bottles of alcohol was seized at the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border... People can't be forcibly stopped from drinking, but governments should try to make them aware about the ills of alcohol."
With inputs from Ashok Kumar Shukla in Kushinagar and Vinod Kashyap in Saharanpur
The author is a Kanpur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters