November 2, 2000


Rediff Shopping
Shop & gift from thousands of products!
  Books     Music    
  Apparel   Jewellery
  Flowers   More..     

Safe Shopping

 Search the Internet

E-Mail this special report to a friend

The Rediff Special/ Kerala's liquor tragedy

Death in the bottle
Every day, hundreds of people fall prey to the flourishing illegal liquor trade in our country. But it is only when mass tragedy strikes -- when headlines scream '35 Dead', like it did in Kerala last week -- that the nation takes notice. For a brief moment. Before the next headline grabs its attention.

Meanwhile, the death toll continues to rise. Scores of people continue to be admitted into hospitals after imbibing the spurious spirit. And Kerala, which prides itself as the model state -- both in terms of development and its high literacy rate -- continues to maintain the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the country.

The manufacture of hooch is illegal in India. Yet, it is one of the nation's most money-making businesses. It feeds on the twin evils of human greed and political apathy. A two-part special by Senior Associate Editor George Iype.

How hooch
is made

Click here
The Vypeen villages, a remote cluster of islands off the Kochi coast, begin to fade in the sunset. A villager staggers his way home though coconut fields that are just a blur in his eyes. Years of his addiction to the local brew have made Joseph Tharakan nearly blind.

Tharakan says he only has a cataract problem. His wife, Mariam, insists it is arrack (country liquor) that has affected his eyesight and made the family poorer.

Like Tharakan, scores of villagers, labourers and respected middle class men are addicts to arrack, which the locals call patta in Malayalam.

Five years ago, patta was freely available in government-licensed arrack shops (mini-bars that dotted the street corners). Until the A K Antony-headed Congress government, in a political move, banned arrack in the state on the eve of the assembly election.

The last-minute decision did not help the image-starved Antony government. The Congress-led United Democratic Front was defeated at the hustings by the Communist Party of India-Marxist-led Left Democratic Front.

But the ban on the sale of arrack remained, encouraging the unofficial manufacture and sale of hooch in polythene bags, cheap bottles and cans.

The result: Today, Kerala is Paradise for illicit hooch manufacturers and vendors. The trade has created scores of liquor kings and queens, one of whom happens to be Hairunnisa alias Thatha. She ran a massive local brewery from her home; it was the illegal arrack manufactured here that claimed 35 deaths in the state's Kollam district last week.

Until her arrest soon after the tragedy, she was the supplier of thousands of packets of hooch to every village in Kollam and in the adjoining Trivandrum and Alapuzha districts.

As of now, even her accomplices have been arrested. Her home-run brewery has been sealed. But she is said to be quite close to some CPI-M leaders. She has officially donated Rs 10,000 for Kairali TV, a channel started by the CPI-M three months ago. The police believe she has unofficially donated at least Rs 25 lakh to the television channel.

What happened last week, though, still pales in comparison to the massive liquor tragedy that hit the Vypeen islands in 1982 -- 78 people died, 63 were blinded, 15 were disabled and nearly 650 families were reduced to penury.

According to official figures, 225 people have died in Kerala because of hooch in the last 20 years. The unofficial figure is said to be much higher.

This phenomenon is not unique to Kerala. Hooch tragedies are a regular affair in neighbouring Tamil Nadu as well. In February, 1999, 15 people died after they drank the poisonous brew. A few months earlier, in August, a major hooch tragedy hit the Paruvoothi and Yenasolai villages in Dharmapuri district, claiming 45 lives. Some 60 people lost their eyesight. Eight people were arrested, but the illicit liquor trade continues unabated in Tamil Nadu.

As it does in Kerala. A number of small and big liquor contractors were arrested for the Vypeen tragedy. But they have been released on bail and are fighting the case which has been registered against them.

In Uttar Pradesh, hooch deaths occur at frighteningly frequent intervals. In May 1998, nearly a hundred people died after drinking illicit liquor in Sewrahi.

One of the biggest hooch tragedies in the country took place in Cuttack, Orissa. It killed more than 200 people on a Sunday evening in 1992. But it was only recently that the sub-divisional judicial magistrate of Dhenkanal remanded hooch kingpin Surendranath Das, alias Belu, in the case.

That year also witnessed another phenomenon. Women in a remote village called Dubagunta in Nellore district, Andhra Pradesh, protested against arrack auctions. Their demand for a ban on the sale of arrack spread to almost all the districts in the state.

Eventually, it forced the government to impose prohibition in the state. However, the illicit liquor industry continues to flourish in Andhra Pradesh. Symbolic of its growing importance is the fact that, today, the government has partially lifted prohibition in the state.

Prohibition activists in Kerala insist the ban on arrack is of no use. "It is foolish to ban country liquor when the government cannot make excise and police officials to book the hooch manufacturers," says Father Jacob Mannaraparayil, vice-president, Kerala Madhyanirodhana Samiti, a pro-prohibition organisation.

They claim hooch is manufactured and sold in the state with the support of government officials and politicians. "The CPI-M government has been supporting the liquor mafia. Poor people are forced to drink poison. It is an abject human rights violation," fumes Father Jacob.

When then chief minister Antony imposed prohibition in Kerala, he claimed the ban would liberate the lower classes from the clutches of the hooch menace. He even increased the excise duty on foreign liquor to 200 per cent.

Antony claims his partial prohibition movement was one of the best pro-poor policies in the country. "Families have been ruined because of arrack. So I banned it to help the poor. But the present Marxist government wants the poor to drink arrack. Exploitation of the poor in the name of votes is that party's motto."

The CPI-M was not supportive of prohibition and pledged to review Antony's decision. Once it came to power, it did not lift the ban for fear of political agitation. It did, however, modify the policy by reducing the excise duty on foreign liquor to 150 per cent.

Pro-prohibition activists point out that illegal arrack sales flourish in every nook and corner of Kerala, even in broad daylight. According to a survey by the Madhyavirundha Munnani, an anti-liquor organisation, there are at least 85,000 illicit hooch outlets that sell arrack freely across the state.

"The number of illicit liquor vendors and shops in the state are higher than the number of arrack shops that the government auctioned prior to the ban. Prohibition has only multiplied arrack sales in the state," says Ravindra Menon, a member of the Madhyavirudha Munnani.

These days, the addictive brew has its share of popular brands. Those who want a lighter version of the concoction can drink Manavatty and Intimate. Others opt for Anamayakki, a stronger and immensely popular brew.

Excise officials offer two reasons as to why hooch tragedies revisit states like Kerala almost every year. First, many businessmen involved in the arrack trade before its ban took to manufacturing and selling hooch illegally. Second, political parties do not want the ban on arrack to be implemented strictly because it will affect their vote banks.

So the hooch traders thrive. Excise and police officials thrive, thanks to their monthly bribes. And hooch-makers continue to use all kinds of fermentations to give that extra kick to the poor and thirsty.

According to a survey conducted by the National Service Scheme in certain Orissa villages, 71 per cent of the villagers drank local liquor and nearly 40 per cent of them suffered from night-blindness.

A similar survey carried out by the diocese of Verapoly in the Vypeen islands concluded that illicit liquor has partially or fully impaired the vision of as many as a thousand people.

Each hooch tragedy is followed by much protest from political parties, a few arrests, suspensions of excise officials and the institution of enquiry commissions.

Then, another headline hits the newspapers and grabs the people's attention. Until the flawed excise laws and the nexus between politicians and the liquor traders bring about another hooch tragedy.

Also read: Paradise for liquor barons

Hooch barons' disclosures embarrass politicians
Hooch claims policeman's life in Kerala
Inquiry by HC judge into hooch tragedy
'Liquor queen' held for twin tragedies in Kerala
Hairunnisa alias Thatha: Kerala's liquor queen
Kerala hooch tragedy toll 25
Spurious liquor claims 13 lives in Kerala
Bar owners brew trouble for Kerala government

Kerala hartal turns violent
Patna tops Bihar cities in liquor consumption
Kharva youth launch anti-liquor drive in Porbander
Ahmedabad youth in favour of prohibition on liquor

The Rediff Specials

Do tell us what you think of this special report