Last week, the death of four persons allegedly due to the consumption of spurious liquor in West Bengal’s Bardhaman district, triggered panic among the people. While the police maintained that they were awaiting details of the postmortem, raids were held at several hotels and eateries in the town.
Sadly, this was not the first such incident reported in the State. More than 140 people were killed at Sangrampur in South 24 Parganas in December 2011 after drinking illicit liquor. In November 2018, at least seven persons died at Santipur in Nadia.
Despite being one of the highest-ranked States in consumption of alcohol, there has been denial about such deaths. RTI queries on the issue and related convictions have remained unanswered, states socio-legal researcher and RTI activist Biswanath Goswami.
Goswami had sought year-wise and district-wise break-ups of the total number of deaths recorded in West Bengal due to consumption of illicit and toxic liquor from 2011 to 2021. The query also sought details of chargesheets submitted, acquittals and convictions in such cases.
Responding to Mr. Goswami’s repeated queries, the State Public Information Officer of the rank of Deputy Inspector General of Police, on January 29, 2021 transferred the request to State’s Excise Directorate. The query was transferred as per Section 6(3) of the RTI Act which implies that the department had no such information.
Later, the Excise Directorate also denied any information. In its reply dated August 8, 2021, it stated, “Excise Directorate or its subordinate offices do not handle cases of human death due to suspected consumption of toxic illicit liquor.” “Despite my repeated reminders, the State police and West Bengal Excise department denied that they have any information in this regard,” Mr. Goswami said.
While other States have furnished data about such deaths to the National Crime Records Bureau, West Bengal has not given any information as per reports in the past two years. “Liquor-related deaths are treated as a separate category of accidental death by NCRB,” Mr. Goswami said, adding that authorities have not disposed of his appeal so far.
The RTI activist said that incidents like Sangrampur and Santipur are in public domain with the West Bengal government having not only ordered a probe by Criminal Investigation Department but also announcing compensation of ₹2 lakh each to the kin of the deceased.
“Death due to consumption of illicit liquor is treated as a separate category of accidental death by NCRB. Despite my repeated efforts and reminders, the State police and West Bengal Excise department denied that that they had any information in this regard”Biswanath GoswamiRTI activist
“The denial of such crucial information, which can serve as a tool for policymakers and researchers, signifies a dangerous trend in the State where authorities are purposely denying crime data. This also reflects poorly on the functioning of the State Information Commission,” the activist said.