A woman sits on a hospital bed. She is one of the 200 people getting treated for drinking spurious liquour. A journalist walks upto her and asks her how she feels. She responds she is a little better. The journalist then asks in an admonishing tone – “So will you be drinking again”? The woman, a little embarrassed, responds that she won’t. She has small children. Who will look after them if she dies from drinking spurious liquor?
Assam’s hooch tragedy which saw around 200 people dead is one of the worst that the country witnessed. In Jorhat and Golaghat district, the last one week witnessed the death of a large number of people. They were mostly tea garden labourers who consumed spurious country liquour and developed complications leading to death.
The tragic incident left many families devastated. While the government promised an ex gratia payment of Rs 2 lakh for those who died and Rs 50,000 for those who fell ill, families are still grappling with the loss. The victims consumed tainted liquor laced with methyl alchohol, a chemical that attacks the central nervous system. The affected people start behaving abnormally and fall dead soon enough.
The incident and the large number of casualties have raised some pertinent questions. Why is this hooch which is so poisonous also so easily available? Tea garden workers went to record saying that they buy it worth rupees ten and drink it. Why such illegal thekas are running in the open? What is the excise department doing in this regard?
The excise minister Parimal Shuklabaidya has time and again stated that the guilty officers will be punished, but nothing much came out of it. The local people at Golaghat demanded that the owners of the godowns filled with a kind of jaggery (lali gurr) used in making this hooch should be arrested. But it seems only some workers have been arrested while the owners continue to be free.
While the responsibility is yet to be pinned on to the guilty, the reaction of the Assamese media and people on social media has been appalling. While TV journalists have taken a moral high ground and asking people to give up drinking, they also lamented that these tea garden workers ‘don’t learn a lesson’. That people coming back from the funerals of those who died drinking spurious liquor were also dying of the same cause. Instead of pointing out the extent of addiction, the tone had a hint of irony.
The excise department when questioned for utmost failure in reigning the production and sale of this drink, became active and raided such thekas across Assam. But by then the damage was very much done. And in fact a new kind of problem arose. The sudden crackdown of these shops selling illegal liquor left many addicts suffering from withdrawl syndrome. Along with medicines, in some cases they had to be restrained.
While media no doubt took a moral highground and emphasised on the problems of drinking, it also highlighted protests in different places which wanted a blanket ban on alchohol. People on social media largely responded in a similar tone.
While morbid jokes like how those ‘lucky’ ones dying from the poisoning were given two lakhs by the government was doing the rounds, some were quick to advice that these people should have used the money for drinking something healthier like milk. People went on record saying that they buy hooch worth Rs 10. One is left wondering how much milk one can afford with the same money!!
The dominant response both in media and social media has been the need to give up drinking. It is interesting that in a state like Assam which is home to a large number of tribes and communities where brewing rice beer and other liquor at home is a part of their culture. Drinking is not a taboo. In fact the government has also taken an initiative to promote traditionally prepared liquor.
There is a need to draw a clear line between illegal spurious liquor which is a risk to one’s life and the liquor prepared at home. A blanket ban or prohibition will impact both. Examples from other parts of the country also prove that prohibition does not end drinking, it only pushes the industry underground and hence out of government’s regulatory right.
After it was banned in Bihar in 2016, people started crossing over to Nepal to buy in cheaper. In Kerala, a blanket ban was lifted after such a ban saw the rise in the use of spurious liquor and health hazards.
What the discourse also overlooked is the inhuman conditions under which tea garden labourers work. A woman when asked why she drank said that after a day’s back breaking work, it helps overcome the tiredness. The terrible working condition of tea garden labourers is no secret. Women even when pregnant are expected to be on their feet the whole day and carry heavy weight. They are not given breaks to even relieve themselves. The daily wage continues to be low. And the food items that they are given as a part of their wage lacks nutritional value.
A life which only knows back breaking labour will look for respite in cheap liquor. Instead of passing moralising comments, the focus should have been on not only the poor condition of tea garden labourers but also aimed at improving their standard of living. A fulfilling life which provides an enjoyable leisure will definitely not see people lining to drink something that will push them towards sure death.
Excise department must continue their crackdown on such production hubs. The alleged nexus between industrialists and excise officers should be looked into. Along with this, the overall condition of the tea labourers – socio-economic-cultural conditions need to be uplifted. If this is not done, there is no guarantee that such tragedy won’t strike again.