Country liquor may limit hooch tragedies

The recent hooch tragedy in Odisha which claimed more than 30 lives in two coastal districts of Cuttack and Khurda confirmed the fact that illegal liquor trade was rampant in the state.

It also proved that the state government had not learnt any lesson from similar incidents in the past.

Since the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) came to power in the state in the year 2000, more than 100 people have died in as many as six liquor tragedies in different districts including the recent one. This means during the last 12 years of the BJD rule the state has witnessed one hooch tragedy every two years. Apart from recent victims, a similar liquor related incident had consumed 21 lives in coastal districts of Khurda and Puri in 2001. In 2006, 29 people were killed after consuming spurious country made brew in Ganjam -- chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s home district.

Regular intervals

The other three, which were minor ones, had occurred in 2009 (Khurda-Bolangir- 12 killed), 2010 (Balasore - 3 killed) and 2011 (Rayagara- 4 killed). To be fair to Patnaik government, liquor tragedies had been taking place in different districts at regular intervals even before the BJD came to power in the state. In fact, according to an official report, between 1989 and 2012, the state has witnessed as many as 25 liquor tragedies which has claimed nearly 300 lives. The worst ever hooch tragedy in the state was recorded in Cuttack city in 1992 which had claimed nearly 150 lives.

A section of observers is of the view that the state is witnessing liquor tragedies more frequently because of lack of follow up actions on the part of the government after these incidents. To prove their point they cite the examples of liquor mishaps of 2001 and 2006. After the 2001 tragedy in Khurda and Puri districts, the state government had appointed a judicial commission under justice M N Patnaik to probe into the incident. The one man commission had submitted it report in 2005 with some recommendations, which were not implemented fully.

Similarly, a majority of the recommendations made by justice P K Patra commission which had probed the 2006 liquor tragedy in Ganjam had been put into a cold storage. The fate of the above two judicial commissions has prompted many people in the state to believe that the judicial probe ordered by the Patnaik administration into the recent hooch tragedy is nothing but a diversionary tactic.

After the recent tragedy, a long time demand for total prohibition in the state by a section of activists has once again gained ground. However, observers believe that a blanket ban on all kinds of liquor trade is not a permanent solution to stop hooch tragedies. Such bans had never worked anywhere in the world. It, in fact, would possibly lead to illegal liquor trade on a bigger scale. The need of the hour, according to them, perhaps is opening of more official country liquor shops to bring down the number of illegally run outlets. Besides, there is also a need to pump into the market more quantities of legally prepared country brew.

At present two varieties of country liquors are officially available in Odisha. While ‘Aska 40,’ which is quite cheap - sold at Rs 17 for a 200 ml pouch - is permitted for selling in nine districts, ‘Mohuli’ made of Mahua flowers is available in the rest of 21 districts, mostly tribal dominated and backward areas.

Aska 40 sells nearly 88 lakh litres every year, 4 crore bulk litres of Mahuli is being made available in the market throughout the year. Still there has been a huge demand-supply mismatch of both varieties of country liquors. This shortage has made many lower income groups to turn to locally made cheap medicines and tonics with higher alcohol contents to satisfy their liquor needs.

In fact, the recent hooch tragedy was an outcome of consumption of two locally made syrups which reportedly had the poisonous methyl alcohol (methanol) in them. “All the victims had used these medicines as liquor”, said Bhubaneswar commissioner of police B K Sharma who had led the raids on two city based pharmaceutical companies that had manufactured the tonics.

Sources in the excise department admitted that there was a shortage of the popular Aska 40 brew in the market when the recent liquor tragedy took place. As a result, the two brands of syrups were selling briskly at a premium.

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