Does Ghusuri tragedy signal a return of the illegal liquor trade in Bengal?

In December 2011, a major tragedy took place at Sangrampur in the Magrahat police area in Diamond Harbour Block of South 24 Parganas district. On a chilly winter evening over 150 people died after consumption of methanol-laced illicit liquor. The initial death figure on that very day was reported at 143, which later went up to 172.

However, since then, hooch-related deaths have become extremely rare in West Bengal. There have been two incidents after the Sangrampur tragedy so far. But in none of the two incidents, was the death toll anywhere near the figure reported in Sangrampur.

In September 2015, 14 people died in Moyna block in Tamluk sub- division of East Midnapore district. In this case also methanol- laced hooch was the culprit.

The latest such incident was at Ghusuri in the Malipanchghora police station area in Kolkata, adjacent to Howrah district, this month which has claimed 13 lives so far.

Is the Ghusuri tragedy a signal of the return of the black days of regular hooch-related deaths. However, people who have detailed knowledge of such incidents, feel that Moyna or Ghusuri are aberrations and in the present liquor distribution and state excise system there is nothing to indicate that such tragedies will be regular affairs. But at the same time they say that even such minor tragedies can be avoided if the ruling parties and sections of the police do not pamper the hooch operators.

Finance minister Chandrima Bhattacharya, under whose portfolio the excise department comes and cooperative minister Arup Roy have claimed that the Ghusuri tragedy is a one-off incident and there will be no resurgence of the hooch menace in the state. “Of course, even a single death is not desirable. Strict instructions have been given to the administration to tackle the offenders in the Ghusuri tragedy as strictly as possible. If any policeman is involved in this, he will also not be spared,” said Arup Roy.

Retired excise department official Karunamoy Basu explained why the hooch business is not a profitable venture in West Bengal after the Sangrampur tragedy. “A business flourishes because of the demand for the product. The hooch trade flourishes in states where prohibition is in place or in states where the supply chain of cheap but authorized country liquor is not adequate. Hooch manufacturing is a cheaper and easier proposition and can be done in the backyard of your residence with minimum resources while caring for the proper distillation process. Methanol is generally mixed with hooch to increase the ‘kick’ factor. So, in states with prohibition hooch is a safer option and in states without proper supply chain of authorized country liquor hooch again is a cheaper option.”

He pointed out that after the December 2011 tragedy, the state government did three things to counter the hooch menace. The first was effectively augmenting the supply network of authorized country liquor even in the remotest pockets in the state, which on the one hand fetched additional revenue for the state government and on the other hand successfully met the demand for hooch.

“Secondly, the excise and police departments started conducting regular raids to check the few remaining hooch joints and destroy the manufactured hooch. Finally, the excise department created its own intelligence network among the local women who used to regularly give information about any new hooch manufacturing joint.”

“At the same time, the excise department also choked the avenues of unauthorized methanol supply in these remote pockets of the state. Still certain operators carried on with their business but their trade was mainly restricted to those pockets where the process of extending the country liquor supply network was yet to be completed as happened in the case of Moyna in East Midnapore district in September 2015. As for Ghusuri, I am unable to comment since I am no more in service,” he added.

According to former additional director general of police in West Bengal, Nazrul Islam, illegal hooch joints, however less they might be in the state now, could not have operated unless the operators enjoyed the patronage of the ruling party leaders and a section of the local police. “Whatever I learnt about the Ghusuri tragedy is that the principal operator of the illegal hooch joint there, Pratap Karmakar, had extremely close connections with local ruling party leaders. At the same time, the joint was at a stone’s throw from the Malipanchghora police station. Was it possible for Karmakar to operate that joint without the knowledge of the local police? So, in my opinion the administration should be equally strict about the errant police personnel.”

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