The death toll in the hooch tragedy has crossed 100, with two-thirds of the fatalities in Uttar Pradesh and the rest in Uttarakhand. The condition of scores of others is critical, and they are being treated in hospitals. The UP police have taken hundreds of people into custody. The BJP government has set up a five-member Special Investigating Team to probe the tragedy. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has sought to portray the tragedy as a conspiracy against his government. He seems more preoccupied with blaming opposition parties for the hooch tragedy than getting to the bottom of the truth. He has asked the SIT to focus on the conspiracy angle. Hooch tragedies are not uncommon in India. In 2008, for instance, 180 people from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — almost half of them were from slums in Bengaluru — died after consuming hooch. A year later, 136 people died after drinking the deadly brew in Gujarat. These are some of the incidents that captured media attention. However, there are countless instances of people dying after consuming hooch that go unreported and unnoticed.
A deadly brew that is often spiked with pesticides and chemicals, including battery acid, to increase the ‘kick’, hooch is cheap in terms of money but costly in terms of human health. This deadly cocktail causes blindness and damages vital organs, often resulting in death. Hooch tragedies happen because governments don’t act to prevent the manufacture of illicit alcohol. Politicians and police, being important patrons of the industry, do not act to halt the trade. Consider this: in the wake of the tragedy in UP, 79,000 litres of illicit liquor have been seized across the state. Why didn’t UP officials seize this earlier. Were they waiting for a tragedy to act? Some are calling for prohibition of alcohol to prevent hooch tragedies. But prohibition has never worked. Indeed, it is known to spur the production and consumption of illicit liquor, making people more vulnerable to death. Alcohol is prohibited in Gujarat and Bihar, but this did not prevent the tragedy in Gujarat in 2009 that claimed 136 lives or the one in Bihar in 2016 where 16 lives were lost to consumption of hooch.
Karnataka’s experience in this regard is instructive. The government used to manufacture and sell arrack in sealed packets. This was a safe brew. Then, in 2007, the JD(S)-BJP government halted the government manufacture of arrack. It played a role in the hooch tragedy of 2008. To prevent hooch tragedies, governments must provide the poor with safe and inexpensive options even as they resolutely crackdown on the manufacture and sale of illicit liquor.