TN hooch tragedies: Greed, political patronage, poverty and exploitation make a deadly concoction

South First gets to the root of illicit liquor menace in Tamil Nadu villages in the wake of recent twin hooch tragedies that claimed 23 lives.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published May 23, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedMay 23, 2023 | 9:00 AM

TN hooch tragedies: Greed, political patronage, poverty and exploitation make a deadly concoction

The police action was too late and too little for 23 people who died after consuming spurious liquor in Tamil Nadu’s Chenagalpattu and Villupuram districts last week.

Soon after the people started dying, the Tamil Nadu police launched a massive raid across the state, arresting 1,558 people, and filing 1,842 cases. The police also destroyed 19,028 litres of distilled arrack, and 4,943 litres of wash.

Further, 16,493 bottles of Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) were seized from the black market.

Since 1 January, 55,474 cases over illicit liquor were filed and 55,173 persons, including 4,534 women, were arrested for dealing in the illegal liquor business. Nearly 2.55 lakh liters of hooch were destroyed, according to the police.

After the twin hooch tragedies, the Home Department suspended 11 police officers, including Villupuram Superintendent of Police (SP) N Shreenatha. Chengalpet SP A Pradeep was transferred. His posting has been held in abeyance.

The government assigned the Crime Branch-CID to probe the tragedies and announced an ex gratia of ₹10 lakh to the deceased’s next of kin. Cases have been registered under Section 302 (Punishment for murder) of the Indian Penal Code.

However, Opposition parties are not satisfied. They are clamouring for the resignation of Chief Minister MK Stalin and a total prohibition in the state.

South First investigated the tragedies and found that the actions initiated and the post-incident clamour are too little to root out the menace of spurious liquor.

Related: Tamil Nadu hooch tragedy: Toll continues to rise 

Keeping hooch brewing

Greed, political patronage, poverty, and exploitation of unorganised labourers are the major reasons that keep hooch brewing in Tamil Nadu.

Chief Minister MK Stalin consoling a patient at the Villupuram Hospital on Monday. (Supplied)

Chief Minister MK Stalin consoling a patient at the Villupuram Hospital on Monday. (Supplied)

Retired Deputy Superintendent of Police A Nagarajan told this correspondent of the practical difficulties in cracking down on bootleggers.

“The Prohibition Enforcement Wing (PEW) works under the direct supervision of an ADGP-ranked officer. The PEW officers know the areas where bootleggers operate,” he told South First.

He then drew attention to the police-brewer nexus that hamper the PEW’s effective functioning.

“Before conducting a raid, we have to inform the jurisdictional police. Often, the local police pass on the information to bootleggers in advance,” he said, adding that some PEW officers also benefit from the illicit trade.

Nagarajan viewed the suspension of officers post the twin tragedies as mere eyewash. “In a few months, their suspension will be revoked after a department-level investigation,” he said.

Related: NHRC sends notice to govt, police chief over hooch tragedy

Nagarajan wanted the officers, including those in the intelligence wing, be booked for dereliction of duty, besides probing their association with illicit traders.

However, it is easier said than done. It requires political will, as CJ Rajan, organiser of the Tamil Nadu Federation of Anti-Liquor Movement, pointed out.

“For any local political event, partymen approach the bootleggers for donations. In return, they back the illegal traders,” he claimed.

Rajan then asked a pertinent question. “If the police could register these many cases and arrest more than 1,000 people in two days after the twin tragedies, what were they doing all this while?”

He has the answer. Illegal brewing is not possible without the knowledge of the local police. He urged the government to set up a dedicated toll-free number for citizens to pass on information regarding illicit liquor.

Merchants of death

Advocate N Kannan of Villupuram concurred with Rajan. The spurious liquor business is not new to the region, he said.

Chief Minister MK Stalin held a urgent review meeting with the higher officials at Villupuram Government Medical College Hospital after the tragedy (supplied)

Chief Minister MK Stalin held a urgent review meeting with the higher officials at Villupuram Government Medical College Hospital after the tragedy (supplied)

“Illicit liquor is being produced and sold freely over the past two decades, particularly in the interior regions of Chengalpattu, Villupuram, Cuddalore, and Nagapattinam districts. Earlier, it was like a cottage industry, produced locally and sold within districts, mostly on village outskirts,” he said.

“They even used to receive bulk orders during village temple festivals. A few syndicates with political backing have taken up the trade now,” Kannan told South First.

The lawyer has noticed hooch being sold in different packages —  in packets, half-litre, and even one-litre bottles.

A “reformed” bootlegger, S Armugam from Cuddalore, said bootleggers use two methods to produce moonshine.

“One is the old practice of producing hooch — by mixing fruit waste with dead batteries, and fermenting it with a few chemicals. Now, they are mixing methanol with distilled hooch, mostly procured from Puducherry. This method produces high-proof alcohol,” he told South First.

Methanol, or wood alcohol, mostly used as engine fuel, kills and destroys families —  as it did in Tamil Nadu.

Also read: How Soliga tribals are taking to sports to keep bottle at bay

Armugam served nearly six years in prison in an illicit liquor case. “I executed a bond to the local police that I will not be involved in the hooch trade anymore,” he claimed.

He then went on to explain how the trade operates. “You cannot conduct the business without the support of the police or politicians. If you try to operate individually, your competitors will not let you do business. They will tip off the police”

Armugam also said that the trade is like any other pucca business model. “The producer will not sell directly. They will give it to a dealer and the dealer will give it to the sub-dealers,” he explained.

“Further, the sub-dealers will sell it to the traders. Each region will have a trader. Each will get their cut (commission). Sometimes, the sub-dealers sell the liquor directly,” he said.

A police constable, who was earlier with the PEW, explained how the liquor is transported.

“Normally, the hooch will be distributed within a 50-km radius of the ‘brewery’ because of police checking. Further, the bootleggers avoid the main roads. They take single-lane routes which connect villages. The liquor is normally transported around noon when there are fewer police patrols,” he told South First.

The constable agreed that most bootleggers have a political backing, irrespective of parties. “They even have legal teams to take care of the cases.”

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The bane of poverty

Ammavasai, a farm owner in Chengalpettu’s Perumkaranai village, procured hooch from Puducherry on 11 May. The liquor was meant for the daily-wage labourers working for him.

Chinnathambi, 34, and his wife Anjali, 22 were among the labourers Ammavasai had hired to chop wood the next day. After work, they approached the landlord for wages but were provided packets of liquor.

They took the packets home, drank the liquor, and shared it with Anjali’s mother Vasantha, 42.

“All three fell unconscious,” Arumugam, the 17-year-old son of Vasantha, later said. “My mother complained of fading eyesight. When she complained of stomachache, I bought her soda. But she died lying on my lap,” the boy, who also lost his sister and brother-in-law, said.

Arumugam had lost his father years ago. An elder brother is the only one left for him.

The dead trio was among the daily wagers and coolies from below-the-poverty-line families that the clientele of bootleggers. Their financial status and uncertainty in life do not allow them any luxuries, and occasionally make them take to cheap liquor — often they are forced to consume it.

They cannot afford the cost of liquor sold at the government-run Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited (TASMAC) outlets, where the smallest, 180 ml liquor bottles costs ₹130. But the government outlets charge an additional ₹10 for each bottle.

Also read: Medical conferences: More about alcohol than knowledge sharing?

Then there is the exploitation of labourers.

“My sister Anjalai and her husband Chinnathambi had gone to chop wood for Ammavasai. After work, they were given liquor packets instead of money,” Arumugam said.

“They took it and due to body pain, they consumed the liquor and gave a share to my mother Vasantha,” the boy explained his loss.

The reduction in work days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), too, has taken a toll, forcing women to work in farms, brick kilns, and at construction sites. Often, they are provided liquor packets instead of wages.

“If a person’s daily earning is ₹200, will he spend ₹140 on liquor? He naturally turns to hooch, which is sold for around ₹30 to ₹40,” pro-prohibition activist Rajan said.

Unlike TASMAC which has fixed working hours, illicit liquor is available round the clock and could get it delivered.

Also read: Facing backlash, Tamil Nadu amends order on liquor sale

Hooch and de-addiction

Dr D Christopher, who is attached to a de-addiction center in Chennai, said that ethanol and water are the main components of most alcoholic beverages.

“When such fermented and distilled alcohol injures the health, this spurious liquor is much more dangerous because it does not have any proper process and mostly methanol is used for manufacturing. It directly affects the nervous system,” he told South First.

“A person addicted to hooch, won’t get the ‘kick’ he prefers from legal alcoholic beverages. Additionally, the high one gets from hooch remains for a longer period,” he said.

Dr Christopher added that treating those addicted to hooch is tougher. He called for a total prohibition of liquor.

Also read: Women in Telangana are more open about alcohol consumption

Prohibition impractical 

Prohibition is not new to Tamil Nadu. “After independence, the Congress government imposed complete prohibition in the state and it continued till 1970,” sociology research scholar D Surender. told South First.

“The DMK government then lifted the prohibition. Later, the DMK and AIADMK allowed and banned toddy and arrack, at various points of time. In the late 1980s, the AIADMK, under the rule of MG Ramachandran, launched TASMAC, and allowed the sale of liquor,” he said.

Surender does not advocate prohibition. He felt it would be impractical.

“When the neighboring states are selling liquor, you can’t ban the alcohol completely in Tamil Nadu. It will boost the sale of arrack and illicit liquor,” he opined.

When asked about states like Gujarat prohibiting liquor, Surender scoffed. “It is a myth. Gujarat has the highest number of illegal liquor sales. Sale of arrack can be found in rural parts and the border districts in Gujarat and I have personally visited them for my projects,” he added, noting that the only relief is there are fewer hooch-related deaths.

Rajan of the Anti-Liquor Movement opined that monitoring the sale and distribution of chemicals such as methanol and other compounds will prevent hooch tragedies.

Batting for prohibition, Rajan said that prohibition cannot be imposed all of a sudden. First, the government should concentrate on rehabilitation and should reduce the number of shops, he said.

The process will be a long-drawn one. “Prohibition is not just banning the sale of liquor. The aftermath of prohibition will lead to chaos in the given situation since the number of alcohol addicts is high,” Rajan added.

Also read: Docs worried as more youngsters die of alcohol-related illnesses

Need for stringent law

Advocate J Ruban called for stringent, deterrent punishment to bootleggers and those who support them.

The police have been normally booking the accused under sections 4(1)(i) r/w, 4(1-A) of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act,1937.

“When there are more than four cases filed against a person in a row, the Goonda Act is invoked. But conviction is less due to procedural failure,” he said.

Ruban also opined that illegal trade is impossible without the knowledge of the police. He wanted the government to review the TN Prohibition Act, and make amendments to include the sellers of compounds as accused in illicit liquor cases.

He also said that all hooch death cases should be registered under Section 302 of the IPC and the complacent police officers should be booked as perpetrators.