Even as the death toll in the Tamil Nadu hooch tragedy rose to 22 on May 17, a special team under the direct supervision of Director General of Police (DGP) C. Sylendra Babu arrested Elaiyan Nambi, a 30-year-old chemical engineer working at a firm in Vanagaram in Chennai, on the night of May 16, for having supplied methyl alcohol to bootleggers.
The bootleggers distributed it in sachets as illicit arrack to villagers of Ekkiyarkuppam, a fishing village in Villupuram district, and Perunkaranai in Chengalpattu district, on May 14 and May 15. Twenty others who consumed the arrack are in serious condition in hospitals in Puducherry, and Chengalpattu and Villupuram districts.
The engineer confessed that he had sold three barrels of the chemical to Ezhumalai of Puducherry, who the police said was the main distributor. His agents filled it in 200 ml sachets and sold them in the villages.
As per the Tamil Nadu Denatured Spirit Methyl Alcohol and Varnish (French Polish) Rules 1959, any “methylated spirit” is unfit for human consumption and requires a licence for storage, purchase or sale.
The sale of methanol clandestinely or in retail has been banned under the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act, 1937. Also, the container of the chemical must boldly display a skull-and-bones sign on it, suggesting that it is dangerous.
Councillor’s husband detained
The police detained some 80 persons under the Goondas Act, including a notorious liquor seller of Villupuram named Maruvur Raja, whose wife Ramya is DMK councillor of Ward 20 of Tindivanam municipality.
The police also arrested illicit liquor sellers Ammavasai, Muthu, and Amaran from Villupuram district for possessing the spurious liquor. They said that they had bought the liquor in Puducherry.
In a Statewide raid, the police registered 1,842 cases and arrested 1,558 persons since May 15. It seized 19,028 litres of spurious liquor and 16,493 IMFL bottles meant to be sold in black. The police also seized a car and seven motorbikes.
A senior police official told Frontline that intense raids for two days in these villages and also at the suspected selling point, referred to as ‘guest house’ by Ekkiyarpuram village residents, had led to the seizure of nearly 500 sachets of the deadly chemical, ready to be sold to the consumers. Many sachets containing the fatal brew were also seized from houses.
Quick police action and awareness through television and social media platforms saved the lives of many who had kept the sachets for consumption later, the official added.
Cheaper but fatal
“My father was lured by his friends to take this deadly chemical,” said Sanjay, the younger son of Suresh of Ekkiyarkuppam, one of the victims. He told Frontline that the sellers were spotted in their villages since the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said that many persons from nearby villages also used to buy sachets from these sellers. “It was cheaper than the TASMAC stuff. As the owner of a small boat, my father had to take care of a family of five. Now we have lost our only breadwinner,” said Sanjay.
As TASMAC had hiked its prices recently, with a 180 ml bottle of brandy now costing around Rs.200, poor people preferred the illicit liquor that was supplied at Rs.50 for a 200 ml sachet.
The bootleggers had a geographical advantage for their clandestine distribution. The cluster of villages on the east coast between Chennai and Puducherry, including the two villages where the deaths occurred, had become easy turf for them to continue their nefarious trade without any interference either by law enforcers or revenue officials. A majority of the people living in these hamlets are fishermen and agricultural labourers, who had lost their sources of regular income after the pandemic.
Ekkiyarkuppam, a village of 500 families, is in mass mourning with almost every street having lost a resident. Besides the loss of lives, several lost their vision. Close to 60 persons are now in hospital.
The government has suspended Villupuram SP N. Shreenatha and Villupuram and Chengalpattu DSPs of the Prohibition Enforcement Wing, apart from a host of Inspectors, Sub Inspectors and constables. Chengalpattu SP Pradeep has been transferred.