Deadly concoctions

Print edition : January 05, 2002

A series of tragedies resulting from the consumption of methanol prompt the Tamil Nadu government to allow the sale of low-priced liquor in the State.

TAMIL NADU Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam announced on December 5 that Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) would be sold in the State from the first week of January 2002 at the rate of Rs.15 for 100 millilitres. The State government took this decision after about 100 people died in three separate incidents after consuming methanol, an industrial solvent. Most of them were poor farm workers addicted to liquor. Panneerselvam said: "As IMFL is beyond the reach of the poor people, they drank spurious liquor and these tragedies took place. So the government has decided to introduce cheap liquor." The price reduction will be brought about by slashing the excise duty.

Women arrested on the charge of selling illicit liquor in Vellore. The sachets in front of them contain liquor.-

On September 9, 13 persons died after they drank methanol mixed with water at Menambedu village, near Ambattur, a suburb of Chennai. Methanol again turned out to be the killer of 30 people at Kottur, near Chennai, and of 52 people in Natham, Mel Arungunam, Manam Thavizhindhapudur, Rayar Palayam, Woriyur and other villages in Cuddalore district. Several people lost their eyesight.

Police officers attributed these three incidents to a shortfall in the availability of illicitly distilled arrack and rectified spirit in the State after they smashed illicit liquor dens and arrested hundreds of bootleggers. According to them, methanol mixed with water served as a substitute for illicit liquor. In the past 10 years, 398 people have died and 1,259 have been hospitalised in 53 liquor-related incidents in Tamil Nadu. About 80 per cent of these deaths were caused by methanol.

Methanol has been a killer drink in other parts of the country too. In Karnataka, 324 people died in July 1981 after imbibing methanol. In May 1998 and April and June 2000, 280 such deaths were reported from the State. Methanol claimed 200 lives in Orissa in May 1992, 50 lives in Bihar in May 1994, 50 lives in Andhra Pradesh in 1993, and 34 lives in Kerala in October 2000.

Methanol is not an intoxicant. It is a deadly chemical, and consumption of about 30 ml is sufficient to cause death. As it looks like arrack and has an alcoholic flavour, it is mistaken for illicitly distilled arrack. It causes numbness of mind, loss of vision, and finally death.

The low-priced IMFL is held up as a "safe alternative". However, women presidents of panchayats have stoutly opposed its sale. About 30 of them, who gathered at the Gandhigram Rural Institute for a training programme, expressed their resolve to stand up against the low-priced liquor. P. Manimegalai, president of the P. Gudalur panchayat in Dindigul district, wondered how a government that could break a strike of the public transport workers, who were organised under trade unions, was unable to control the distillation and sale of illicit liquor.

Officials dealing with prohibition-related offences stress the need to initiate a four-pronged drive against illicit liquor. As part of it, they say, the government should curb the availability of methanol, sell liquor at an affordable price, conduct a sustained campaign to educate people about the dangers of illicit liquor, and initiate long-term measures to rehabilitate addicts.

Tamil Nadu has not had a consistent policy on prohibition, and successive governments led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have swung from one extreme to another. Prohibition was introduced in Salem district in 1937 by C. Rajagopalachari, then Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency. Later it was extended to other districts. Total prohibition was in force in Tamil Nadu until 1971. The DMK government headed by M. Karunanidhi suspended it in 1971 and allowed the sale of arrack and toddy. However, the Karunanidhi government stopped the sale of these in 1974. After this, two liquor tragedies took place, in 1975 and 1976.

In 1981, the AIADMK government headed by M.G. Ramachandran reintroduced the sale of arrack and toddy (going against his promise that he would never relax prohibition). Their sale continued until 1987. In this period there were no reports of deaths caused by the consumption of spurious liquor. In 1987, the sale of arrack and toddy was again banned. In 1988 and 1990, illicit liquor claimed many lives in Tamil Nadu. In 1990, when the DMK was in power, the sale of arrack and toddy was revived and it continued up to July 16, 1991. After the AIADMK came to power in 1991, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa fulfilled her election promise to ban the sale of arrack and toddy. In the period following the change in policy, many deaths owing to the consumption of illicit liquor were reported. According to a government official, the death of a large number of people since the sale of arrack and toddy was banned in 1991 "indicates a need for selling safe liquor at an affordable price for the poor".

The removal of methanol from the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act in 1984 has hampered the efforts of the police to check the diversion of methanol from industrial applications to the illicit liquor trade. Methanol is now covered only under the Poisons Act, 1919, a piece of Central legislation. It is also covered by the Petroleum Rules of the Government of India, because it is inflammable. Misuse of methanol attracts only simple imprisonment for three months under the Poisons Act. "We cannot arrest anybody. It is a non-cognisable offence," said a police officer.

Police officers want the provisions of the Poisons Act to be tightened. The police have devised a strategy to tackle sellers who are undeterred by imprisonment - to book them repeatedly so that they are forced to look for an alternative means of livelihood. The "hardcore" ones among them are booked under the Bootleggers Act, which provides for one year's imprisonment for offenders.

The Prohibition Enforcement Wing of the police enforces the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act. "Strictly speaking, we have no jurisdiction over methanol and so we are not able to take major legal action. The only thing we can do is to recommend the cancellation of the licence of an industrial unit (for selling methanol)," an officer said.

After the removal of methanol from the purview of the Prohibition Act, the number of industries using methanol has proliferated in Tamil Nadu. Industries manufacturing paint, varnish, pharmaceutical products and so on use methanol as a solvent. Such industries are located in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Assam and the Union Territory of Chandigarh. Much of the methanol used in Tamil Nadu comes from Maharashtra. It costs about Rs.8 a litre there and about Rs.10 in Tamil Nadu.

More than 200 factories in the State use methanol. These factories, according to Paramvir Singh, Additional Director-General of Police (Enforcement), store several hundred thousands of litres of methanol. "So there is a good chance of leakage of methanol from them to unscrupulous elements." The diversion takes place at the point of manufacture, at the stockists' godowns, or during transportation by road tankers. "In the previous years too, methanol was identified as the major cause of liquor tragedies. A minimum of two tragedies take place a year. In 1998, there was a major incident at Dharmapuri in which 48 people died. In 1999, there were four incidents, and in 2000 there were two," he said.

In Menambedu the deaths were caused by methanol that was allegedly diverted from a chemical company at Madhavaram, near Chennai. The factory's licence was cancelled. In Kottur the alleged culprit is a company situated at Flower Bazaar, in the heart of Chennai. This firm had no licence to sell methanol.

There is a big market for cheap liquor in rural areas where the majority of the people cannot afford IMFL. Rectified spirit is generally smuggled into Tamil Nadu from Karnataka and Pondicherry. Any police action leads to a shortfall in the supply of illicit arrack. In order to meet the demand, illicit arrack traders procure methanol and sell it.

The three latest incidents showed that the victims drank methanol because "illicitly distilled arrack was not readily available", Paramvir Singh said. This argument is buttressed by the fact that IMFL consumption at Cuddalore in November 2001 was 20 per cent more than the level in the corresponding period the previous year. Paramvir Singh said: "We are driving the organisers of rectified spirit hard." Those arrested were not able to get bail. Since they had been on the run for the past several months, they were not able to organise the sale of rectified spirit from Pondicherry.

According to Paramvir Singh, similar was the experience in villages near Panrutti. Davidson Devasirvatham, Superintendent of Police, Cuddalore district, stepped up raids on bootleggers, smashed the illicit distillation points and blocked the movement of illicit arrack and rectified spirit. "He took effective action," Paramvir Singh said. In this situation, bootleggers took to selling methanol.

Informed sources said 10 barrels of methanol was brought from Maharashtra to Chennai. Of this, 450 litres was transported by car to Palapattu near Panrutti by three men who belonged to Pondicherry. This was distributed to local sellers at Mel Arungunam. There were reportedly "door deliveries" as well. Those who drank the mixture of methanol and water complained that it tasted like pesticide. Local sellers Rajendran and Chinnaponnu also "tasted" the brew, and both died. In Woriyur alone, 23 persons lost their lives.

"Our problem is big and complex," Paramvir Singh said. It is evident from the fact that 25,000 to 30,000 people are arrested in the State every month for prohibition-related offences.

Women played a big role in selling illicit liquor. Of about 2.75 lakh people arrested in Tamil Nadu in 2001 for prohibition-related offences, about 62,000 are women. In 2000, 3.45 lakh people, including about 80,000 women, were arrested. In 1999, about 95,000 of the 3.91 lakh offenders were women. In 1998, more than 3.5 lakh persons were arrested and 88,000 of them were women.

The police and the civil administration are set to launch a two-pronged drive to combat the problem of illicit liquor. It consists of a campaign to educate people about the dangers of drinking and a rehabilitation programme aimed at weaning away the addicts. Paramvir Singh said: "For this, we have identified non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with reach in the villages." The NGOs include the Family Planning Association of India, the Indian Council for Child Welfare, the All India Democratic Women's Association, the Bharat Vikas Parishad, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Women's Voluntary Services for Tamil Nadu, Nalamdhana, the Altrusa International Women's Club, the Consumer Protection Forum, the Centre for Women's Development and Research, the Lion's Club, the Nehru Yuvak Kendra, the Madras Christian Council for Social Services, and so on.

On December 18, representatives of these organisations had a meeting with Paramvir Singh, G. Dorairaj, Superintendent of Police, Prohibition Enforcement Wing, and P. Nagaraj, S.P., Central Investigation Unit, to chalk out a programme of action. Paramvir Singh said: "People will be sensitised about the dangers of drinking methanol. When they drink illicit liquor, they are inviting death." When police officials met the survivors of the Panrutti tragedy at the Government Headquarters Hospital, Cuddalore, they said they were not aware of the death of 32 persons owing to the consumption of methanol in Kottur less than two months earlier. The educational campaign is under way and posters highlighting the dangers of drinking have been distributed.

The State government is examining the possibility of setting up a rehabilitation committee in each district with a fund to be raised mostly from the fine levied on prohibition offenders. The committees, comprising women, will be headed by the respective District Collectors. The Superintendent of Police will be the secretary. The committees will adopt villages that have been identified as "black spots" and use a part of the fund to rehabilitate addicts.

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