Illicit brew kills in Kallakurichi but lives on in ‘dry’ Tamil Nadu

In a strange paradox, in a land where there is a licensed liquor shop just round the corner, you have a market for the illicit brew.

ByR Rangaraj

Published Jul 02, 2024 | 4:00 PM Updated Jul 02, 2024 | 6:21 PM

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For a state like Tamil Nadu committed to a dry law on paper, almost a third of its revenue comes from the sale of liquor, fetching over ₹45,000 crore a year to the state treasury.

The Tamil Nadu government manufactures and sells the Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) as a wholesaler and retailer as well, carrying the slogan ‘kudi kudiyai kedukkum‘ (alcohol will kill your abode’).

Yet, in a strange paradox, in a land where there is a licensed liquor shop just round the corner, you have a market for the illicit brew, turning once in a way into a monster brew as happened in Tamil Nadu’s Kallakurichi a few days ago, ending in 65 lives lost so far.

It’s also a paradox, even farcical, that a ‘dry’ state like Tamil Nadu, armed with a prohibition enforcement wing with men and vehicles, also sells liquor officially, and is one of the leading producers and consumers of the liquor.

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State’s consumption of liquor

According to the National Sample Survey Organisation’s 2011-2012 consumption data, the state holds the 12th position in consumption of beer and Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL).

National Family Health Surveys (NFHS), proving how pervasive alcohol consumption is in Tamil Nadu, shows 46.7 percent of males reporting that they consume alcohol.

The state is sixth on a list of 17 States and Union Territories surveyed for NFHS 2015-2016. There are nearly 7,000 retail Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) outlets, many of them with a bar, licensed or otherwise.

The problem for the average consumer, the state has some 75,000 tipplers consuming liquor daily, is that the quality of the state-run TASMAC shops, selling its own produce, is low, according to the tipplers.

Thus, a consumer finds that even after two rounds of the liquor he doesn’t feel intoxicated. To bring about a mood of inebriation, the illicit brew makers prepare a concoction, sometimes adding the dangerous methanol or methyl alcohol to deliver a ‘kick’ to the brew, to add to the intoxication levels.

It’s this methanol, perhaps added in good measure in a disproportionate formula, that results in the hooch tragedy such as at Kallakurichi.

Hooch tragedies

This is not the first time that Tamil or for that matter any other dry state like Gujarat or Bihar has experienced hooch tragedies. Some of them have even been of larger proportions.

In May 2008, in the border villages of Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu and Kolar in Karnataka, nearly 180 people succumbed to the killer brew, 60 in Krishnagiri district and the rest in Kolar and Bangalore suburbs, which contained methyl alcohol.

In 2009, NRCB data revealed that 429 persons died in Tamil Nadu due to illicit liquor consumption, while the figure went up to 481 in 2011.

20 deaths were reported in 2020 due to the illicit brew.

The Opposition parties have pointed out that just last year, in May 2023, over 10 persons died after consuming the illicit brew, six in Marakkanam and six in Perambakkam. There has been no paucity of cases registered against the offenders, but the illicit trade goes undeterred as it has the support of the local people, where both men and women consume the brew.

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Police looking the other way

Police personnel, both in the regular law and order police stations, and those in charge of the Prohibition Enforcement wing, tend to look the other way, rather than take on the local mafia who enjoy popularity in the villages.

Besides, the price of the illicit brew is much lower than the ‘official’ drink in TASMAC shops.

The racket has some support from local politicians of various hues and shades. It’s an open secret that the brew continues to be made and sold.

Every time, there is an outbreak of a tragedy, there is a clampdown for some time, but after a few months, it’s business as usual.

With a narrow revenue base and GST crippling its potential to collect taxes, the DMK government in Tamil Nadu, much like the previous AIADMK governments, desperately need the revenue from the TASMAC shops to provide for their freebie schemes.

‘Impossible prohibition’

Though a party might score a few points by introducing prohibition, experts feel it would be impossible to enforce it. In fact, they opine that illicit brew production would increase if prohibition is clamped down on the State.

When the ageing statesman of the country, C Rajagopalachari, drove to the residence of the then chief minister M Karunanidhi in 1971, in pouring rain, to plead with the latter not to suspend prohibition, Karunanidhi told him that Tamil Nadu was like a piece of camphor surrounded by fire on all sides (a reference to how it would be impossible for a ‘dry’ Tamil Nadu to prevent the flow of liquor when it was freely available in neighbouring states).

However, no statesman is alive today who can try to reach out to MK’s son, MK Stalin.

As a compromise, some suggest opening toddy shops which were not dangerous, would be available locally, provide employment and revenue to villagers as well. It remains to be seen if toddy will prevail over liquor.

(R Rangaraj is a senior journalist based in Chennai. He has covered elections since 1977. Views are personal.)

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