The Excise Department seized 2,858 litres of spirit from Karunagapally and Kazhakoottam early this week. According to a senior official, initial investigation revealed that the spirit was meant for adulteration of toddy. However, none has the answers to where the spirit disappears after entering the State. And the annual turnover in the illegal business in Kerala is pegged at Rs. 2,000 crore.
Where does all the alcoholic spirit smuggled into Kerala go?
The police and the excise department officials are being asked the question because they talk about the flow of illicit spirit into the State but never about where the spirit disappears after being smuggled in.
Excise department figures show that a total of 31,897 litres of spirit was seized during 2012. Seizures this year until May 31, 2013 adds up to 15,144 litres.
Early this week, Excise Intelligence officers seized nearly 3,000 litres of spirit from Kazhakottam and Karunagappally. The modus operandi of the smugglers involved bringing spirit in concealed storage tankers and selling it to their customers between Thiruvuanthapuram and Kollam on the basis of prior arrangements.
However, a senior Excise Department official said that on Tuesday night, when the consignments were seized, the smugglers had failed to deliver any of the quantity they had brought from Tamil Nadu because there were no takers. They were on their way back to Tamil Nadu when they were nabbed.
The economics of the illicit liquor industry is mind-boggling. Jacob Punnoose, former State police chief, said in a conference sometime back that the industry is worth around Rs. 2,000 crore a year.
An Excise Intelligence official, who did not want to be named, said spirit smuggled into the state is consumed in three different ways.
The crudest form of consumption of spirit is in its diluted version as illicit arrack. But then those who drink arrack are not fooled and know what they drink. For instance, many who frequent the Kattoor beach in Ambalapuzha Taluk in Alappuzha district vouch for the open sale of spirit there.
The more dangerous mode of illicit spirit sale is by fooling consumers into believing that they are actually drinking Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), legitimately produced by companies inside or outside the state. Smugglers dilute the spirit, add colour to it, bottle it and put forged labels of popular brands and sell it as IMFL.
The sale can be through a network of underground retailers and through some bars where labelling and bottling are not looked for.
The third lot ends up in toddy shops for adulteration.
In May 2010, the shadow wing of the Kochi city police worked on a tip-off and arrested three persons and seized 450 litres of spirit from a luxury sedan near Pathalam. One of the arrested persons was the manager of a bar at Vyttila in Kochi, another had worked in a toddy shop in Thrissur as a salesman for 10 year and the third worked as a helper in a hotel in Thrissur. The police have not yet filed the chargesheet in the case and the owner of the car is yet to be traced.
In a similar incident in March this year, Excise officials seized 51 litres of coloured spirit from an auto in Kottayam. Four young people, all under 25, were arrested and on interrogation, the Excise officials recovered another 810 litres of coloured spirit from a house in Eluvalikkara, near Erumely.
But still, the law enforcers have not been able to link these cases and track the spirit to the bars. No case has been registered against bars till date for selling spurious liquor. In fact, Kerala Bars and Hotels’ Association has challenged law enforcement agencies to come up with evidence of any member’s bar being used to sell illicit spirit or spurious liquor and claim a cash reward of Rs. 10 lakh. The reward is yet unclaimed.
But the indicators cannot be ignored either. “During seizures, we do come across absolute alcohol (the purest form of spirit with ethyl alcohol content of 99.5 per cent) and extra-neutral alcohol (ethyl alcohol content of 96 per cent). These variants are costly compared to rectified spirit (with 85 per cent ethyl alcohol), which is used by small-time brewers. So it is our belief that those who are into illicit brewing in an organised manner, and dispensing the liquor thus made through bars are investing on finer variants of alcohol,” said an excise department official.
“In the absence of a fool-proof system to ensure the quality of liquor, the state is waiting for another tragedy,” said G. Mohan Raj, who was the special prosecutor in the court cases on the Kuppana, Kalluvathukal and Avaneeswaram spurious liquor tragedies.