Other States

In Assam’s tea estates, an uphill battle against a killer brew

An awareness campaign in progeress in a tea estate in Dibrugarh, Assam.

An awareness campaign in progeress in a tea estate in Dibrugarh, Assam.  

With illicit liquor offering quick money, offering a sustainable alternative is crucial to stop the trade


Five years ago, Rumi Kamar’s elder daughter wanted to have a taste of what she had brewed. That was when Ms. Kamar decided to end her 10-year-old sulai (country liquor) business which she ran from her house near the Ghuronia Tea Estate in eastern Assam’s Dibrugarh district.

Ms Kamar started brewing sulai soon after she became a mother at the age of just 15. The liquor fetched up to ₹3,000 on Sundays as plantation workers splurged on pay day.

Part of her decision to distil illicit liquor was to ensure a better life for her two daughters as her husband did not have a regular job.

But her daughter’s demand changed things. “I suddenly realised this (brewing) was not the future for my daughters,” Ms. Kamar said.

Now almost 30, Ms Kamar switched to rearing pigs. She earns a fraction of what she made from “quenching the thirst”, but “I no longer feel guilty”, she said

The 45-year-old Debaru Bhakta, once a competitor to Ms Kamar in Ghuronia, also started raising pigs three years ago. “Sulai is paying. But I don’t want to reap the curses of the dead and their survivors,” he said.

Mr. Bhakta was referring to the last month’s hooch tragedy in Golaghat and Jorhat districts that killed 168, mostly plantation workers — many of them women. At least a dozen others who survived, have lost their eyesight.

Periodic awareness drives by the local administration, labour organisations, agencies such as the Unicef, and the management of some estates have played a significant part in the turnaround in small time distillers like Ms. Kamar and Mr. Bhakta.

“Weaning people away from liquor or brewing, which is lucrative, is easier said than done. The difficult part is financing alternative vocations for small-time brewers, many of whom do not possess land,” Dibrugarh’s Excise Superintendent Ajoy K. Bayan said.

He credited field workers such as Chandra K. Baruah who visit the estates periodically to keep tabs on illicit liquor dens apart from advising people to kick the habit. “It is not always a dark story (alluding to the hooch tragedy) though motivation is a painstaking process,” Mr. Bayan said.

Dibrugarh upped the ante against sulai when Laya Madduri, since transferred to southern Assam’s Cachar district, was the Deputy Commissioner. “We learned that things did not end with campaigning with all stakeholders. We provided training to brewers in various vocations. The toughest part was convincing banks to back those who want to reform,” she told The Hindu.

A few did go back to brewing, but many moved to other professions with or without financial support. They include Sailen Gogoi, a hitherto unlicensed brewer of Ahomgaon, who learned carpentry and received a loan of Rs 1 lakh through Dibrugarh district officials to set up his unit.

Dealing with the plantation workers, though, has been tougher. This is where the efforts of the decade-old informal Mother’s Club comprising 12-15 women from estates under the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association, have yielded results.

“Alcoholism has not been eradicated, but our intervention has made a lot of difference,” Radhamani Saonra, a club member of Borjuli Tea Estate in Sonitpur district said.

British hangover

Social activists said access to cheap liquor is a trait planters have inherited from their British predecessors to keep labourers in a state that do not let them seek any other opportunity. “Drinking keeps the workers busy during the evening, to be ready for work early next morning,” Amiya Sarma of NGO Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi said.

Some planters disagree. “Our efforts have kept liquor off our estate. Campaigning against alcoholism is part of our managerial drill,” Somnath Nandi, manager of Borjuli Tea Estate, said.

Navin Keot, secretary of the Congress-affiliated Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh, admitted that lack of political will has hit the “century-old” battle against the bottle. “Action is often against the smaller illegal brewers who can be motivated. At the root of the problem are richer brewers who want the extra money,” he said.

The bootleg sulai sells for ₹30-40 per 750 ml bottle while the licensed, branded variety costs ₹60. Two years ago, the BJP government changed the country spirit policy and abolished the British-era mahal system, in which a few people controlled large swathes of the legal, quality-controlled sulai market.

The new policy allowed licensed manufacturers, spaced out across Assam, to produced hygienically packed sulai while IMFL outlets were allowed to sell the local liquor for an annual license fee of ₹20,000.

The State government has not ruled out sabotage by those who were hit by the abolition of mahal system leading the February hooch tragedy.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 7:02:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/in-assams-tea-estates-an-uphill-battle-against-a-killer-brew/article26488617.ece

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