ON July 7, Gujarat woke up to witness its worst ever hooch tragedy. During the course of the previous night and in the early hours of that morning, hundreds of men and women had been rushed to two government hospitals in Ahmedabad, with complaints of loss of eyesight, vomiting and unbearable pain in the stomach. In spite of the doctors best efforts, not many of them survived.
During the week, more than 159 people died after drinking spurious alcohol supplied by one of the many bootleggers who operate in Ahmedabad. Approximately 230 people are still in hospital.
We do get cases of alcohol poisoning, but I have never seen such large numbers or anything like this before. They were dropping like flies. We just did not have enough time to treat them as the substance was so potent and lethal, said a doctor who was at the scene but prefers not to be named.
The tragedy that unfolded in Ahmedabad has again brought into focus the debate on prohibition. Does banning alcohol really benefit people? It is Gujarats worst-kept secret that any type of alcohol country or English is freely available. Would it not be safer to legalise the process and reduce the likelihood of these terrible incidents? Or does the ban work as some form of deterrent and hence help in reducing ugly incidents that occur under the influence of alcohol?
It also draws attention to the fundamental issue of unemployment. All the cases in this particular tragedy came from working class neighbourhoods that were created when textile mills flourished in Ahmedabad. Now that the mills have closed down, most of the second-generation residents work for daily wages. The frustration caused by unemployment and the rising cost of living is obvious.
Alcohol, says Bipin Shah, a social worker, is a great way to escape reality isnt it? He reasons that alcoholism was not such a huge problem when the mills were running because people earned good salaries and living was affordable. Providing the right opportunities to these people and their children will stem the rot, he says.
Since its inception in 1961, Gujarat, the home State of Mahatma Gandhi, has prohibited the sale or consumption of alcohol. Gandhians believe that prohibition is responsible for the relatively good law-and-order situation in the State.
Unfortunately, the State is not as dry as it claims to be. According to informed sources, hundreds of bootleggers, in collusion with the police and politicians, sell all manner of alcohol across the State. The government cracked down on hundreds of bootleggers in the State following the latest tragedy, but local residents say that liquor can still be bought, though not as easily as before. After the tragedy, Chief Minister Narendra Modi proposed the death penalty for people selling alcohol. But no one is scared. This correspondent witnessed the sale of country brew a few days after that statement.
According to a reliable source, no one involved in the spurious liquor trade in the State is scared, because of its sheer scale. Not wanting to name names, he said: Everyone is involved. Huge amounts are involved. They cannot stop this so easily. How can it exist so blatantly if key people are not involved?
Its a very tough decision for Modi or anyone. He cannot lift it [prohibition], as the Congress will bay for his blood. If he lets it exist in the current form, these tragedies are bound to occur, says Achyut Yagnik from the Centre of Social Knowledge and Action in Ahmedabad.
Recently, the debate on whether prohibition should be lifted came up when Modi presented his plans for Gujarats industrial development. Management consultants told Modi that the alcohol ban was a major obstacle to attracting investment to the State. Moreover, it was pointed out that the State was losing approximately Rs.2,500 crore in revenue because of the ban. In the name of development and tourism, he relaxed the law by allowing alcohol in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and at international events. The situation is very hypocritical. Yet what real options are there to this problem? says Yagnik.
Odhav, Amraiwadi, Raipur and Rakhial are four of the areas worst affected by the hooch tragedy. They are not located close to each other, yet they are strikingly similar in profile. The colonies are old, and most homes are pucca structures. Constructed during the textile boom, these are clearly working class neighbourhoods that have seen better days.
The men, if lucky, find daily-wage employment. The women supplement their income by making agarbattis (incense sticks) or beedis and earning about Rs.30-40 a day. Most homes are about 100-200 square feet and accommodate at least three generations.
Walking through these areas, the most palpable feeling is that of frustration, despair and hopelessness.
While interviewing the families of those who succumbed to spurious alcohol, this correspondent found the same story repeating itself over and over again. It is not men alone who are addicted to alcohol; women, too, find solace in it.
What is worse is that not a single official has visited the areas, not a single non-governmental organisation (NGO) has turned up to help. It is as though no one wants to acknowledge the issue or that this problem exists. And there are few solutions in sight.
Ghansiben Kanhariyal sits outside her tiny house in Ramdevnagar, Rakhial, in shock. Her son Bhagwan Das (40) was among those who died on July 7 after drinking illicit alcohol. With his passing she has lost all her three sons. Her husband and another son also died from alcoholism. I have no money. The only person to make some money has died. I do not know how I am going to live, she said.
Originally from Rajasthan, her husband came to Ahmedabad to work in a mill. When it shut down, he did some lifting work. That was when he started drinking, she said.
We tried to educate our children, but could not carry on because there was no money, she said. Her sons made a little money working for daily wages, but it was never enough. They drank from an early age. It is an addiction, and those who want it know where to go. It is very easy to get it in this area, she said.
At 3 a.m. on July 7, Dinesh Sendhajis family rushed him to the neighbourhood clinic when he woke them up complaining of a terrible pain in the stomach. When he began losing vision, they knew he was in a critical condition. At the clinic, there were many others like him, said his mother, Bhojwanti.
Sendhaji, a daily-wage worker, provided for his mother, wife and five children. I do not know what we are going to do. These people need to put an end to this latha [liquor in Gujarati]. Good or bad, it has to end. Too many people suffer, Bhojwanti said.
Pushpa Salve lost her job at a nearby diamond-polishing unit six months ago. She earned about Rs.3,000 a month, and I knew she was depressed when she had to stop working. I knew she had begun drinking, and I would fight with her over it. Each time she would promise me she would stop. But I never thought she would die from alcohol, said her husband, Vasudev Salve.
When I came home at 9 p.m. on July 6, Pushpa told me she was very sleepy and was going to bed. She woke me at about 4 a.m., saying she had a lot of pain in the stomach. I asked her if she had been drinking, she said yes. I told her we needed to go to the hospital. She died in a few hours. We have two girls and a boy. It is so easy to get alcohol that she used to get it supplied at home, so nobody knew what she was doing.
Alcohol in Gujarat can be categorised broadly into two types: country and English or Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL). Country liquor is of two types, the cheap potli (literally meaning pouch) or latha and deshi (country). Potlis come in packets, hence the name, and Deshi in bottles. Both are made locally.
A local brewer told Frontline that country alcohol was made with natural ingredients jaggery as the base, yeast, salt, pepper and a variety of spices. This form of alcohol is potent, but safe. It is when chemicals are added to the mix that it becomes dangerous. Investigators are yet to declare what exactly the killer combination was in the latest tragedy.
Unless the proportions are right, the mix can be lethal and the person consuming it would have scant chances of survival. Sometimes, the brewer said, battery water and other similar substances were added for an extra kick.
Most of the alcohol not made by local people is smuggled in from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Daman and Diu. According to an Ahmedabad resident, every possible brand of IMFL is available in the city. Its just a phone call away and absurdly cheaper than what it would be in Maharashtra, as we are not paying excise duties.
About half a dozen men have been arrested in connection with the hooch tragedy. Most of them are small fry, foot soldiers of the alcohol dons. None of them is a maker of the brew, say the police. The main perpetrators are still at large.
Gujarat clearly has bigger problems to tackle than catching alcohol brewers, but it could begin with trying to catch those who play with the lives of the poor.