Rajat Sharma

Gujarat toxic hooch tragedy: Who did it?

AKB30 The death toll in the toxic liquor tragedy in Gujarat reached 40 on Wednesday, with seven more persons succumbing during the last 12 hours. Nearly 50 people are still fighting for their lives in Ahmedabad, Botad and Bhavnagar hospitals. Most of the people who died belonged to several villages in Botad, while the remaining were from Dhandhuka taluka of Ahmedabad district.

Ten persons have been arrested by police, and three FIRs have been filed by Ahmedabad and Botad police against nearly 20 persons on charges of murder(Sec 302 IPC), causing hurt by poison(Sec 328), and criminal conspiracy (Sec 120B). The hooch tragedy on early Monday morning when those who had taken toxic liquor were admitted to hospitals in Botad and Ahmedabad.

Gujarat government has set up a three-member committee headed by a senior IPS officer Subhash Trivedi to conduct a probe and submit a report within three days.

India TV correspondent Nirnay Kapoor went to the village that accounted for a large number of hooch-related deaths. He found that 600 litres of methyl alcohol or methanol, a toxic industrial solvent used in factories, were stolen from an Ahmedabad godown by a guard Jayesh alias Raju and sold to his cousin Sanjay for Rs 40,000. Sanjay sold this toxic solvent to small-time bootleggers in and around Botad, who fixed water with methyl alcohol and sold them in pouches for Rs 20 each. Nearly 110 litres of methyl alcohol mixed with water was filled in pouches and sold to people in villages. Police said, 490 litres out of 600 litres methyl alcohol stolen from the godown has been recovered.

Gujarat is a dry state since 1960, where prohibition law has been strictly implemented. The deaths of so many people by consuming toxic solvent is an unfortunate tragedy. Normally, bootleggers use ethyl alcohol while making illicit liquor, but in this incident, methyl alcohol was used which is toxic and is meant for industrial use only. Since it is cheap, it was used by bootleggers.

The first delivery of methyl alcohol, according to police, was made on July 22, it was filled in a drum, and five-litre pouches were filled with the solvent. Bootleggers bought these and against mixed water and sold to people in small pouches, claiming it was country liquor. Methyl alcohol is highly toxic. Anybody consuming this can die in a span of 15 minutes. This solvent, if taken, can damage the liver and cause multi-organ failure. Since water had been mixed with the solvent, the effects showed in a span of 12 to 24 hours.

On being asked how this illicit hooch was being sold, Botad SP told our correspondent that normally in several villages, country liquor is being made and sold secretly. Since it takes six days to prepare country liquor, and there was fear of police raids, bootleggers found a shortcut method and used methyl alcohol this time, the SP said.

The sarpanch of Rojid village in Botad district, however, disclosed that he had complained to police four months ago, in writing, about illicit liquor being sold in his area, but police did not take any action.

Clearly, this is a case of sheer negligence on part of local police. Though the SP of Botad rejected the sarpanch’s allegation as baseless, he admitted that he had got a letter from the sarpanch in March this year. The SP claimed that action was taken against bootleggers and cases were registered. The bootleggers then took the shortcut method and mixed water with methyl alcohol, he said.

The toxic liquor tragedy in Gujarat raises several questions. One, should prohibition be removed since illicit liquor is being made and sold in village? Two, should supply of methyl alcohol to factories be stopped to cut off the supply of this solvent to bootleggers? People who had consumed toxic methyl alcohol were afraid of going to hospitals, because they feared that police could take action against them.

I have been saying repeatedly that prohibition can never be a solution. Of course, awareness must be spread among people and they should be told about the difference between real and fake liquor. This can bring about a decline in the number of deaths due to illicit hooch, but in a dry state, it is difficult to prevent the manufacture and sale of illicit and toxic liquor.

Police cannot get away by saying that it had closed down illegal country liquor distilleries. I suspect that such illegal trade cannot thrive without the connivance of some corrupt policemen, who provide protection to the bootleggers. Strict action must be taken against police officers who were helping the bootleggers. This issue must be kept above party politics. Since Gujarat assembly elections are due in December this year, political parties have already started blaming one another.

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