Bangalore: Efforts to revive 52-year-old Koteshwari went in vain on Tuesday. The daily wage labourer from a Coxtown slum, one of the poorest parts of the city, was rushed to hospital when she fell ill after drinking illegally brewed liquor, or hooch.
Koteshwari was one of the nearly 113 people here and 40 people in the neighbouring Krishnagiri district in Tamil Nadu that hooch has claimed as victims since Sunday, in one of the worst tragedies in this region. Such deaths are common in India. In April 2005, 22 people died after drinking the illicit brew on the city’s outskirts. In January that year, hooch killed nearly 100 slum dwellers in Mumbai.
By now, excise officials in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are fairly certain that the hooch that took so many lives sprung from the same source because the deaths were reported in east Bangalore city and towns such as Anekal and Attibele in Karnataka and Thali across the Tamil Nadu border.
Tamil Nadu officials say that most of the 40 people who died in Krishnagiri were construction workers who bought the brew across the border.
In July 2007, Karnataka banned arrack, a country liquor available at Rs11 per 100ml, following similar bans in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The ban forced the poor to move to the higher priced branded liquor such as brandy and whisky that are known as Indian-made foreign liquor, or IMFL, sales of which have doubled to over three million cases a month in Karnataka from an earlier 1.4 million cases.
However, Sunday’s tragedy shows that bootlegging is thriving, though Karnataka’s excise department says it has been vigilant, having registered about 1,000 cases against hooch brewers and confiscated some 47,484 litres since July.
“The (arrack) ban had an impact only for a few days. People in this area have been buying it all these months,” said Muniyamma, a resident of Devarajeevanahalli whose husband Nagaraj died on Sunday. She says the police were aware of the goings-on but didn’t do anything about it. The excise department suspended nine officials on Tuesday on charges of negligence.
The victims in Devarajeevanahalli, where a majority of the deaths took place, are mostly labourers like Muniyamma and Nagaraj, earning about Rs150 a day. They pay around Rs4 for a bucket of water because there is no piped water, while 100ml of hooch costs Rs10. “My husband has been drinking (arrack) for the past 20 years and nothing happened,” said Muniyamma.
“There are about three or four places where it was available,” said Rajendra, a municipality worker who was hospitalized on Tuesday after he fell ill drinking the hooch.
The deaths have triggered a political blame game in the state where the final phase of assembly elections ends on Thursday. Congress party leader and MP Janardhana Poojary, who belongs to the Billava community of traditional toddy tappers, has been the most vocal, saying the ban on arrack has been disastrous for the poor.
However, the Bharatiya Janata Party which takes credit for the ban, says the hooch tragedy is the work of its political rivals.
Hooch deaths have occurred in all the southern states even when arrack was freely available. “The arrack ban has nothing to do with hooch tragedies,” said Johnson J. Edayaranmula, spokesman for the Delhi-based Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, a non-governmental organization.
“Basically, all hooch tragedies are related to business rivalry (among hooch brewers),” said Johnson, who says he is currently counselling Manichan, a convict serving life imprisonment for a hooch tragedy in Kalluvathukkal in Kerala that killed 33 people in 2000. “No political party can wash its hands of because all patronise them.”
H.P. Erappa, joint director of excise intelligence bureau in Karnataka, says hooch turns deadly when it’s laced with methanol, or methyl alcohol, used in drug making as a purifying or cleaning agent.
“A majority of the hooch tragedies involve methanol and we have been very sensitive (about the way it is handled),” said G. Tilakavati, who heads Tamil Nadu’s Prohibition Enforcement Wing.
In Karnataka, there is a demand to amend rules to allow the excise department monitor transportation of methanol, said B.R. Jagashetty, the state’s drug controller whose department currently awards licences to methanol dealers.