In less than a week after more than 90 women, men, and children died in a calamitous fire at the AMRI hospital in Kolkata, illicit brew has claimed the lives of about 150 people, at Sangrampur in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. Preliminary reports indicate that the hooch was sold in sachets, priced between Rs.7 and Rs.20, virtually opposite a police post in the area. Starting with a couple of deaths early in the morning, the toll kept rising through the day and touched 80 by daybreak next day. Most of the victims complained of body pain, stomach cramps, vomitting, and a burning sensation. The health authorities diagnosed the early deaths as due to “cardio-respiratory failure” arising out of methyl poisoning. Evidently, licensed liquor sold through the legal retail system was out of the reach of the poor, who fell into the trap of the hooch trade. At last report, about a hundred victims were in hospital, most of them said to be recovering.

The recurrence of heart-rending tragedies caused by the killer brew only lends credence to the thinking among political parties and State governments that it might be better to introduce legal sale of licensed liquor than let addicts go for the illicit stuff. One solution that seems to work is the Tamil Nadu model — where the State government monopolises the trade through a State-run distribution corporation that controls the supply of IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor) and facilitates widespread access to it. For one thing, such a system brings in substantial revenue that can be used for financing welfare schemes. Prohibitionists might raise the objection that it also makes liquor available more easily to young people, leading to a much wider health-damaging addiction. But the evidence from across India shows that prohibition just doesn't work; in fact, it brings on all sorts of ill effects, social as well as medical. Although States that still implement prohibition, full or partial, have set up separate wings in the police department to handle cases arising out of prohibition offences and illicit brewing, it is common knowledge that connivance between the brewers and sections of the police makes the hooch flow, particularly in festival season. Most, if not all, victims tend to be poor labourers, and the families end up paying a terrible price. Alcoholism is a social menace that needs to be tackled in a sensitive, intelligent, multi-pronged way. Driving it underground, to dangerous devices, is clearly not the way.

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