Chharas and their breweries

Published : Aug 14, 2009 00:00 IST

Suspected bootleggers and alleged ring leader Daddu Chhara arrested by the Crime Branch of Ahmedabad Police on July 12. Members of the Chhara tribe have been facing police raids after the hooch tragedy.-PTI

Suspected bootleggers and alleged ring leader Daddu Chhara arrested by the Crime Branch of Ahmedabad Police on July 12. Members of the Chhara tribe have been facing police raids after the hooch tragedy.-PTI

MAKING country liquor seems quite simple. Take one part jaggery, mix it with a combination of pepper, garam masala (a blend of various spices such as cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, cumin seeds and nutmeg) and salt. Yeast is added to this paste, which is then mixed in water. When it is completely blended, the mixture is poured into a mutka (terracotta pot) and buried underground. It is left to ferment for 24 hours, after which it is heated on a fire in a barrel. The vapours escape through a tube, which passes through cold water. Owing to the cooling effect, the vapours condense into droplets, which are collected slowly in bottles. These drops are strong alcohol.

A simple enough procedure if there are no restrictions. However, if you have to make it surreptitiously, particularly in a dry State like Gujarat, with the constant threat of the police raiding the premises, it is a mammoth task.

Almost every home in Chharanagar, a poor urban settlement on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, makes alcohol. The area is a maze of decrepit houses and open gutters. Unless you know what to look for, it would be difficult to find the breweries. Yet there are tell-tale signs barrels, shallow aluminium vessels to mix the paste, and large plastic water containers. Under a tight vigil kept by youngsters, the alcohol is made at night. Young and old, men and women, all are involved in the brewing.

The only reason we make alcohol is because we have no other way of making money, Ameeta Chhara (name changed) told Frontline. This is the traditional way of brewing alcohol. There is nothing harmful in it. We know because it is part of our culture. We are a nomadic tribe and we brewed alcohol for our consumption. Now we need to brew as it is our only source of an income.

When Chharas, branded as a criminal tribe by the British, realised that their alcohol was giving them an income, many ended up making it as a full-time occupation. Dakxin Bajrange Chhara, a film-maker and activist who is working on the emancipation of the community, said, Everyone in Ahmedabad knows about Chharanagar and what they do here, but severe action is not taken as the alcohol is consumed by, lets say, the very people who enforce the law.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru lifted the label of criminal tribe in 1951, but Chharas have not been able to shake off the stigma. Originally nomads who earned a living by giving theatrical performances, the community in Gujarat settled in Ahmedabad in an attempt to blend into mainstream life. Dakxin said, We are still not accepted. Although many of our youngsters are educated, they cannot get jobs. So most boys and men end up thieving.

After the hooch tragedy, Chharanagar has been under fire. Although the alcohol that killed 159 people was traced to a source outside Ahmedabad, the police are coming down hard on Chharas. We are an easy scapegoat, Dakxin said.

We have not had a proper sale in three days. Normally I make Rs.150 to 200 a day. Ever since the hooch incident, sales have gone down. These days its barely Rs.50, Ameeta said. I cannot feed my family on this.

Ironically, hundreds die of alcoholism in Chharanagar every year. Ameeta said, In our house, we are all widows. My husband, two sons and my daughters husband died from alcoholism. If you go to other houses here you will see a similar situation.

Interestingly, the women make and sell the brew. It is they who get arrested and harassed, who pay the monthly bribe (hafta) and who, thus, keep the home fires burning. The men work as daily-wage workers, thieve or try and sell alcohol, but do little else. Only because there are but few options, Dakxin said. Like other poor urban colonies in the country, Chharanagar is beset with problems. The drainage is bad and power is in short supply. There are no schools, and there are just a few basic dispensaries. Its one of those forgotten places on this earth, Dakxin said.

Nargis Chhara sits on a straw cot outside her home, looking a little lost. For the past three days, she has had very little work to do. She is an expert in brewing country liquor and her main source of income is the sale of seven or eight bottles of country brew a day. Typical of a Chhara home, she is the head of her family, as many of the men are dead, and provides for 15 people by brewing and selling alcohol. She has been in jail at least twice and faces constant harassment by local policemen who make her appear in court at least twice a week. Yet, she does not give up. What else can I do? she asked. Nobody will employ my family members or me. We have to live. If this gives us an income then this is what we will do.

In spite of the raids, we have managed to sell whatever we had because those who want it know where to look, she said. But it is not enough to sustain us. Nargis believes the heat on Chharanagar will soon subside. And it will be business as usual.

Anupama Katakam
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