Bihar’s hooch tragedies point to a virtual bootlegging industry with huge turnovers

“We have no idea what is licit and illicit. It’s like any other item of consumption,” said Budha Nat from a Mushahar hamlet in Bhojpur’s Ara district.

His relative Diljan Nat – woodcutter, labourer and small vendor – died after drinking spurious liquor. Diljan had consumed four pouches of liquor on December 6. He came home around 5 a.m. and felt too uneasy to work. Within no time he started to froth at the mouth, and died.

Over the next few days, Ara saw 21 people mainly from the dalit Mushahar community drop dead with similar symptoms; some even after treatment. The combined toll of the two hooch tragedies that rocked Bihar’s Bhojpur and Gaya districts is 33.

At Anaith Mushahar tola, Harender Mushahar’s family grieved the loss of their sole breadwinner. “That night, after drinking, he developed difficulty in breathing and started panting,” his wife Pachrathnidevi said. “We took him to a doctor. He received an injection and medicines.”

That did no good. Harender breathed his last, leaving behind his wife, mother and five children. Many in the neighbourhood suffered the same fate.

Death comes cheap by way of spurious liquor. A 200 ml pouch of illicit country-made liquor costs Rs. 10-15, where a legal one costs Rs. 17. For 400 ml, the price doubles.

No marker separates the two, sold in clear plastic pouches available in the open market; except perhaps the price. The print on pouches can be easily replicated to look like an authentic packet.

A 60:40 ratio of spirit and water is approved for country-made liquor. In bootlegged liquor, the ratio of spirit or denatured ethyl alcohol is increased, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Resistance of vested interests to reforms in this area is worrisome. “There is nothing to differentiate between authorised and illicit pouches. We are coming up with hologrammed bottles, but some vested interests dislike it,” remarked a Bihar State Beverages Corporation Ltd official.

Much of the spirit is bootlegged at the transportation stage. “Spirit is not manufactured in Bihar, but in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and parts of Madhya Pradesh. It comes in tankers and heads for breweries in the North East via Bihar. In previous raids, the spirit was totally

consumed in Bihar. It never reached the North East,” Director General of Police Bihar Director General of Police Abhayanand told The Hindu.

Probe into the Bhojpur tragedy found that spirit was illegally obtained from a local homeopath. Ayurvedic practitioners are also found to be applying for spirit although their medicine does not require it.

Complicity of police and excise officials encourages bootlegging of spirit on such a large scale. Politicians and investigators concede that this nexus allows illegal activity to flourish. There exists a sprawling web of ‘purchuniyas’ [small retailers], illegally selling liquor obtained from licencees, in the interiors.

“Spirit,” said a retired excise official “is obtained from depot managers for a monthly [bribe] of Rs. 5,000 to 6,000. That was the rate during my time [three years ago]. For mahua liquor the monthly was between Rs. 1,000 and Rs. 3,000. Machines to manufacture liquor are sold in the open market. There is also a well developed network of vegetable, tea and pan vendors who stock the stuff, which can be bought using code words.”

After the deaths, the Bhojpur administration recommended the suspension of four excise officials, including the Assistant Commissioner for “laxity”. Action was taken against the lower officials.

“The administration knows who makes, who sells. How can they feign ignorance?” remarked Naseem, brother of deceased victim Basheer.

Money and mafia

The staggering scale of returns in the trade necessitates the use of muscle power to guard business interests.