Liquor on tap in dry Gujarat

It may be the first State to implement total prohibition in 1958, but alcohol consumption has been rampant

August 31, 2014 01:24 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST - Ahmedabad:

For Tikubhai (name changed), autorickshaw driver, if meat is on the menu at home, something extra is needed to wash it down. So he buys a pouch of country liquor from the neighbourhood bootlegger.

“I go for a drink quite often. Many of these outlets are run openly at places such as Jagatpur, Ranip, Kubernagar and Chharodi on the outskirts of the city. Typically, a group of 25-30 boys will be found hanging out at these joints, usually the suppliers’ houses. They will sell bottles to you only if they know you,” he says.

“While country liquor costs Rs. 20 a pouch, ‘English’ [Indian-made foreign] liquor can cost Rs. 150 a quarter and Rs. 600 a full bottle.”

The old city of Ahmedabad, with its heritage buildings and congested bylanes, is where seasoned tipplers make their regular trips to. “It’s easier to get booze than food in Gujarat. Restaurants won’t deliver parcels beyond three kilometres, but alcohol will be delivered even 30 kilometres away,” say a staffer from a reputable institution, who has an occasional drink.

Home delivery is just a phone call away, but the choice can get limited and the prices steeper. For example, a premium whiskey brand costs Rs. 4,000 a bottle.

Gujarat may be the first State to implement total prohibition in 1958, but alcohol consumption has been rampant ever since. So is the thriving business of supplying illicit liquor. The State is surrounded by Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Daman and Diu, where there is no prohibition.

Over the years, “thekas,” or roadside shops, in the neighbouring States have developed strong networks with bootleggers who routinely smuggle liquor from these States bypassing the check-posts at their own risk or in connivance with officials, police sources say. The bootlegging modus operandi has improved in sophistication and creativity.

Liquor crates are usually concealed in milk tankers and trucks and under all kinds of cargo. For distribution, they are transferred to smaller vehicles. Vehicles carrying illicit liquor across States keep changing their number plates. Small local suppliers or assistants of bootleggers, also called “folders,” routinely change their cellphone numbers.

One officer recalls being surprised by the way smugglers hid alcohol at the base of an LPG cylinder. There are even more ingenious ways.

In Junagadh and Amreli districts, women too are active agents in the smuggling racket. Custom-made jackets and tight-fitting clothes help hide bottles.

“The bootleggers ride motorcycles from Diu and Valsad wearing jackets that can hold up to 48 quarter bottles. You cannot detect that. Women have been caught ferrying alcohol by train. They tie the bottles to their body and wear saris over it. No-one will have any suspicion and no action will be taken unless you have specific information and women police with you,” a senior officer says.

Apart from water transport in the coastal regions, bootleggers cross the marshy area from Diu to the Junagadh boundary on foot with boxes of alcohol, since water covers the stretch only during high tide.

Official sources say the boundary districts of Banaskantha, Sabarkantha, Panchmahal and Dahod have a labyrinth of poor roads which are used for smuggling with the help of an “undercover setting with officials.”

In the districts of Valsad and the Dangs, on the boundary with Maharashtra’s Nashik, known as the wine capital of India, the chances of smuggling are high despite a small check-post. Rajasthan, Haryana, Chandigarh and Daman are the major sources of illicit liquor coming into Gujarat.

“‘Thekas’ in adjacent States have been selling liquor in Gujarat, in association with bootleggers, for decades. Implementation of prohibition is a problem as 60-70 per cent of the time of the police is taken by prohibition cases. Prohibition is a populist measure for the middle classes, for whom the laws are made. For the Koli population in the coastal districts of Gujarat, liquor is a staple and they brew it locally,” says an officer.

Just between July and August, the Banaskantha police seized 33,804 bottles of alcohol and beer cans and 17 vehicles, all estimated at Rs. 1.19 crore.

The smuggling cannot take place without the connivance of politicians and the police, many say. The well-oiled system of “haftas” is the cornerstone of bootlegging.

“Every three to six months, the police orchestrate a raid,” says Chintan Jani, a lawyer dealing with prohibition cases. “They intimate the supplier, who keeps nearly 500 bottles ready and put his small-time staff on duty, who later get bail. My wholesale and retail clients [bootleggers] have told me that many times, they have become victims of this nexus,” he says.

An official source conceded to this nexus, but refused to elaborate.

Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath announced on April 21 that election authorities seized Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) estimated at Rs. 12.57 crore during the Lok Sabha election in Gujarat.

In 2009, the State was rocked by one of its worst hooch tragedies, which claimed 136 lives in Ahmedabad. Two years later, manufacture, sale and supply of spurious liquor was made punishable by death under the Bombay Prohibition (Gujarat Amendment) Bill, 2009.

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