Hooch tragedy: A societal perspective

More than a hundred people have “officially” died an agonising death in the latest hooch tragedy near Mumbai. Not a voice has been raised against the vendors of death. Not a single minute has been spared for condolences.

And this does not seem to be a matter over which our politicians, intellectuals, activists etc lose their sleep. But then, why should there be even a whimper over this trivial matter? Haven’t we absorbed greater shocks than this, as far as hooch tragedies are concerned?

The latest tragedy is not the first, nor will it be the last or the worst liquor calamity. According to police sources and forensic experts, hooch has killed more than 2000 people in the country during the last four decades. In one of the worst tragedies, 323 innocent people perished in Bangalore, in 1981.

That was the official figure but it was an understatement. Liquor tragedies involving smaller numbers, some reported and some not, are constantly occurring in towns and villages all over the country.

A feature common to all these tragedies is that the victims are invariably from the poorer sections of the society. And, most of the victims are invariably from scheduled castes and are breadwinners of their families.

What drives them to drink is their pathetic living and working conditions. Such people are chronically ill and weak, and are poorly placed to resist the poisonous drink.
It is a combination of an urgent need to drink to escape from physical and spiritual discomforts, hard labour and the lack of physical stamina to bear the consequences of such indulgences that drive the victims to certain death.

The worst crime

Poverty is the worst crime of all, said Bernard Shaw. It is the poor, the slum-dwellers, workers in cities and mines, fishermen and farm workers who go in for cheaper drink after a hard day’s work or to celebrate a marriage or festival.

Exhortations to the poor to give up drinking appear pathetic and particularly sanctimonious when they come from those who are more fortunately placed.

The poor have reason enough to know better than their moral exhorters that drinking does no good. The evidence is there all around them. It is there every moment of their lives.

And yet, if a poor man takes to drinking and persists in the habit even when he knows that every drink carries with it the possibility of blindness, paralysis and death, it is not because he is morally insensitive or degenerate; it is that the conditions of his life and work make it impossible for him to see the day through without the spurious feeling of well-being induced by drinking.

But, the task of making the poor not to feel the need to drink to escape from living horrors of their existence is far more difficult than taking executive decisions to deprive people of liquor.

No end result

Following Mumbai tragedy, the Maharashtra government will “swing” into action announcing compensation to the kith and kin of the victims and promise “stern action” against the offenders. Some bootleggers will be arrested and a few police and excise officials will be suspended or transferred, but no one will know the end result.

The big sharks are seldom caught; they have an elaborate system of arranging for the bail, defence and family welfare of their agents who may be caught and jailed!
No wonder, the government’s vigilance squads and qualified analysts also have failed to end the activities of the vendors of death who distil, bottle and market the killer brew.

All the past inquiries into  liquor poisoning cases have evaporated into thin air with the passage of time. In the eyes of the law, everything is neat and clear: he or she who has been instrumental in the death of many innocent lives must face the consequences.

But the reality is more eloquent than law, and the reality tells us that those who have been guilty of mass murders are given all the facilities and privileges of free citizens.

Anticipatory bails have been given to the suspected distillers and distributors of the killer brew. Many of them have been forgiven and let off in the past. There is no law by which they can be hauled up, not even to make a thorough inquiry.

The inequity of it all cries out to high heavens, baring the mockery to which we
have permitted our demo-cracy to be debased. “O, Justice, thou art fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason.”

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