Dead bodies of the victims killed by drinking toxic liquor being cremated at Halmira Tea Estate in Golaghat district on February 23, 2019

As the number of deaths in the Golaghat-Jorhat illegal liquor case increases, the magnitude of this humongous tragedy unfolds. More than 150 people lost their lives due to consumption of illegally brewed substandard liquor.

The Assam Kaziranga University admissions

As the tragedy unfolds, the reactions are getting sharper. If one browses through the social media as well as the media in general, the reactions and demands are like:

  • Excise minister should resign.
  • Alcohol should be banned in Assam.
  • The government must own responsibility and pay compensation.
  • Why pay compensation to drunkards?
  • How can people make fun of the 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)

…and many more.

Unfortunately, I see very few getting to the root of the problem or the real magnitude of the tragedy. Let me analyse the issue here. There seems to be a clouded picture of what type of alcohol the victims took. 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’ across the state. Second, the home brews like sai mod, apong etc which are essentially rice brews. Third, the Assam excise brews which are sold in pouches and bottles by registered mahaldars. They were sourced from raw material supplied by Dergaon sugar mill in the past. 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 took this type of illegal hooch. To understand the real picture, first and foremost, the pattern needs to be studied. These hooch victims were affected in 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 that 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. This point towards existence of a syndicate/cartel which run the smooth yet illegal operation of making, wholesaling and retailing illegal hooch across at least two districts of upper Assam.

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Now, how could this happen unless it’s a well-oiled machine? Already, three non-Assamese names are in the media who allegedly are kingpins of this business. First, how is it possible for these non-Assamese run illegal businesses to operate in Assamese heartland? How come law hasn’t even accessed them days after the tragedy?

Second, why did the victims take such liquor when legal stuff is available? 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.

Third, 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 do they deserve sympathy? My take on the point is that the money is not an answer. Government should identify the families whose bread earners have been lost. Government then should provide sustenance to such families.

Will banning of alcohol provide any solution? I am of the firm belief that no knee-jerk solution like this can be farther from the answer. Prohibition has never worked anywhere in the world including US. Rather, it gave birth to mafia in US.

Let’s take the case studies of Bihar. People from Bihar go to UP or Jharkhand to enjoy their pleasure of alcohol. Besides, there is a running illegal bootlegging business in the state where alcohol remains banned.

Alcohol is as old as humanity. For every irresponsible drunk in the world, there must be a lakh aficionado who drinks in moderation, responsibly and taking pleasure out of it. Prohibition affects that lakh rather than the single drunk who would anyway drink whatever. In Bihar, school children courier bottles in tuition bags and earn extra bucks as delivery boys. Do we want that to happen here as well?

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Moreover, any government needs revenue to do public works and pay salaries, who would make up for that shortfall of 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 believe Pulwama is 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 chrissakes, do not demean a community as if they are from a different planet. It shows your racial attitude. The dead may have majority from the tea tribes but not all are tea tribes. And not all tea garden workers or descendants are uneducated, drunkards or imbeciles.

Now, where is the solution? The answer lies in us – the society. Over the past 20 years, illegality has found acceptance like never before in our state. Call them syndicates, call them cartels. Almost all politicians, organisation leaders are filthy rich without disclosing any valid source of their wealth. They do not shudder to flaunt their wealth at any time. The worst part is that they are none the worse for that. We seem to accept, idolise these goons and actually look up to them. We do not feel ashamed that we sell our votes… we do not feel indignant that corruption is institutionalised! As a result, this tribe thrives. What has happened in Golaghat and Titabor is an illustration of my statement. These outlets could not have been born, developed and flourish but for the patronage of police, excise and different songothons (organizations). Proof of that is the fact that the very next day of the tragedy, excise and police destroyed many such outlets across the state. How on earth could they have received complaints, investigated, identified and acted within 24 hours if they had no pre-intimation?

Politicians today have no choice but be corrupt because it costs more than a crore to fight an assembly election which is Rs 1.7 lakhs a month for 5 years. On top, every month, for donations an MLA spends about Rs 3 to 10 lakhs per month. Hence, besides his/her salary, he/she needs anywhere between Rs 5 to 12 lakhs of bribes and illegal money every month. To earn this, he has to indulge in transfer/postings, syndicates and collection gates etc. For that, the local policeman, the local excise man, songothons, transport officials, supply inspectors etc must act as their henchmen.

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In a state where the police chief is a man of absolute financial integrity, most of his underlings are corrupt sans a select few. Most of them are corrupt by compulsion too as they have to supply to higher ups and political bosses for protection and for transfer postings. Same is the case with excise.

When you have corrupt ministers, MLAs, songothon leaders, police, excise officials, we are bound to have the Berias, Agarwallas and Guptas working as hooch lynchpins. Whatever we do, unless we stop electing corrupt leaders, tragedies of this magnitude or lesser will keep on happening – in different places, different forms.

If the society and government is really keen to see that Golaghat and Titabor does not do an encore, all it needs to do is to find out how many complaints were given or received by excise and police about these dens. Next step is to pinpoint which officers refused to act on these complaints. Then identify under what compulsion these enforcers failed to act against the illegal hooch dens. Take the case upto the whole chain of offenders – however high position they may be in.

Unfortunately, such actions can never happen. The police DGP is helpless. The excise minister must have his own compulsions. Otherwise, why arrest only employees of these Gupta, Agarwalla and Beria when they owned and traded in that jaggery godowns? Why not find out why and how they ran the business of jaggery in such huge volumes?

Sorry people, nothing is going to change. You, media shall go into amnesia of the whole incident. We are reacting because close to 200 died. We are still not counting the blinded and maimed victims of this hooch tragedy.

(The article first appeared as a Facebook post by the author. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. It may not necessarily reflect the views of The News Mill.)

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About Dr Navanil Barua


The author is a Guwahati-based neurosurgeon and political commentator.


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