Tough action must to end hooch sale

Lakshmi Nagar in the Mumbai suburb of Malvani is in mourning. Around 105 residents of this neighbourhood have died so far in Mumbai’s worst-ever illicit liquor tragedy. With scores of others in critical condition, the death toll can be expected to rise in the coming days. Several arrests have been made but the main suspect, a woman known as ‘Akka’ is absconding. ‘Akka’ is not an unknown, faceless actor in the bootlegging business. She is a kingpin of the vast and deadly illicit liquor network in Mumbai and was arrested several times in the past. On her release, she would return to take over the reins of the hooch industry, running her business under the nose of the local police. The bootlegging business thrives because it enjoys protection. Police and excise officials allow and even facilitate the production, transportation and distribution of illicit liquor. It is only when a tragedy occurs that they seemingly swing into action, raiding hooch dens and making arrests. When the media spotlight shifts, the industry is back in business.

Illicit liquor tragedies occur in India with shocking frequency. Karnataka is among the states that suffered some of the worst such tragedies; In 1981 and 2008 respectively, 308 and 180 people were killed after they consumed illicit liquor in Bangalore. Vikhroli, a suburb of Mumbai lost 87 people to hooch in 2005. Bootleggers add methanol, even battery acid to the brew to make it more potent. Although it is relatively inexpensive – the poor are the main patrons of hooch – its costs are heavy. Consuming hooch causes blindness sometimes and damages vital organs, resulting in death. Many of those who were killed in Malvani were their family’s sole bread-winner. Their death has left scores of families destitute.

The Mumbai Police have promised to make the North Zone an illicit liquor-free area. But destroying stocks, raiding a few dens and arresting a few bootleggers will not free the city, let alone a neighbourhood of illicit liquor. The police and politicians, who are key stake-holders in the business, must be prosecuted too. The public needs to know what concrete and long-term action the Maharashtra government is taking to shut down this industry. Importantly, eliminating this trade will require inter-state cooperation. The Mumbai Police may crackdown on the production of hooch in the North Zone but killer cocktails brewed in other parts of Maharashtra or Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka will find their way there. How many more people are we going to lose to hooch before state governments crackdown on this menace?

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