Dry state demand grows after 155 deaths in Assam

Dry state demand grows after 155 deaths in Assam

Relative of the victims, who died after consuming spurious liquor at a tea garden, wait at the hospital, in Golaghat, on February 23, 2019. At least 59 people died allegedly after the incident. PTI

Death of at least 155 people in hooch tragedy since Thursday evening has raised the demand to declare Assam a dry state while the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress continued the blame game.

Opposition parties, however, said the state government was unlikely to heed the demand as the excise department had set a target to further increase revenue from the sale of liquor in the state.

“The deaths have proved how fatal the liquor can be. There should be a thorough discussion on if we can declare Assam a dry state to check similar tragedy,” Kamal Singh Narzary, an MLA of Bodoland People’s Front, an ally of the BJP-led state government, said in the Assembly on Monday.

The incident rocked the ongoing Budget session of the Assembly with Opposition MLAs alleging that a nexus between the illicit liquor traders and state excise department officials helped the illegal business. “Many children in tea gardens have become orphans as their parents died after consuming toxic liquor. People in those areas have told me that excise department officials are involved with the illegal liquor traders,” former minister and Golaghat MLA (Congress) Ajanta Neog said.

Of the 155 deaths reported so far in two districts — Golaghat saw 95 deaths, most in tea gardens while 60 people have died in the neighbouring Jorhat district. At least 45 were women. “The government is taking stern action against those responsible for the deaths. We are also trying to check use of illicit liquor but it is not possible to solve the problem in a day or two,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said.

Excise minister Parimal Suklabaidya, who faced strong criticism following the tragedy said a preliminary investigation revealed that methyl alcohol was mixed with waste jaggery and other chemicals to prepare the country liquor.

In its 2019-20 budget, the state government said the excise department collected revenue of Rs 1,117.65 crore during 2017-18, which was Rs 151.32 crore more than the previous year. The department had taken steps to further increase the revenue from alcohol. “Revenue issue is not at all related with the incident since we don’t get any revenue from the sale of illegal country liquor. So we have launched a crackdown against those involved in such business,” said a government official.

Many, however, said banning alcohol would, in contrary, push the illicit country liquor business, which does not adhere to any quality control or safety parameter.