Hooch Victims: Not Just Numbers!

Hooch Victims: Not Just Numbers!

Prof. T K Thomas

Hooch tragedy death toll seems to have become just numbers! The coverage of the tragedy last week, that struck mourners from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh returning after a funeral in Uttarakhand was perfunctory and the death toll had risen to almost 100 when reports last came in. What is unusual about it? Don’t we have statistics of major death tolls in hooch tragedies? In the last decade it is reported that at least a thousand people perished drinking illicit liquor.

It is as if such large number of deaths is a routine affair and these human lives seems to have no value and are considered just numbers. The loss of human life, one or hundred in rail, road or air accident; building collapse or fire; medical negligence or an epidemic, stampede or terror attack has to be viewed as loss of precious human lives. It does not matter whether the victims are male or female, rich or poor, VIP or just VOP [Very Ordinary Person] drunk or sober, vegetarian or non vegetarian; what matters is the life lost is that of an Indian.

The problem is that those who die in hooch tragedies are predominantly the poor and the under privileged whose death need not often grab media headlines. It is unfortunate that with elections round the corner and the much revered Kumbh Mela in Prayag Raj in progress, such a terrible tragedy occurred in “Naye Bharat ka Naya Uttar Pradesh” claimed to be the ‘Best State’ in India [ There is a full front page ad to this effect in this morning’s newspapers.]

We have seen the usual, predictable political and bureaucratic reactions forthcoming- ‘No guilty will be spared’; ‘stringent action will be taken’; ‘so many people have been arrested’; Excise and other officials have been suspended’; ’compensations announced’ - the usual platitudes which sound rhetoric. The underworld- politician- law enforcement agencies nexus is actively involved in producing, distributing and protecting illicit liquor killing the poor people who have only the deadly concoctions instead of the so called ‘branded’ drinks advertised with elan, surrogate or explicit.

In the present tragedy there are certain interesting sidelights. According to preliminary reports the hooch was brought in from Uttarakhand, a wet state to Uttar Pradesh, another wet state ruled by a Yogi of Uttarakhand origin. There are also indications that the hooch was smuggled in to Uttar Pradesh from neighboring Bihar, a dry state yet to come to terms with prohibition. Prohibition is supposed to be a directive principle of State Policy in the Constitution of India but implemented only by the Mahatma’s state and now Bihar. Our leaders have realized that Prohibition is ineffective and impractical depriving the state of huge revenues. The health cost of alcohol addiction far surpasses the revenue generated from alcohol. According to a WHO assessment of burden and socio economic cost attributable to alcohol use in India, ”the annual costs of alcohol use in terms of health care, productivity losses, crime and law enforcement and road traffic accidents in India in 2013-’14 amounted to approximately 31.4 billion US dollars, or roughly 2.26% of the national gross domestic product[GDP]. The cost of healthcare and productivity losses from alcohol consumption collectively accounts for the largest share [95.9%] of costs of alcohol use in India.

[>india>publications] Policy planners need to have a hard look at this before formulating alcohol strategies.

India with a population of 1.2 billion people has fast emerged as a consumer society with a burgeoning middle class with plenty of extra money to spend. Alcohol is not exactly a taboo in our tradition bound society with alcohol considered a symbol of prosperity and for catching up with the West.

Alcohol is an issue of attitude and behavior. Most traditional communities in India are ambivalent about alcohol which in fact is a drug that falls in the group of depressants, but considered a legal celebratory beverage. There is hardly any festival or social occasion that does not have alcohol in its ‘menu’ as it is looked upon as the ‘king of good times’. [it is another matter that the original ‘king of good times’ is waiting as a fugitive to be extradited from the land of Scotch!] Alcohol consumption and addiction to alcohol are considered a behavioral issue. Large number of people do get addicted to alcohol and turn out to be compulsive users after being social or casual drinkers. Demand for alcohol therefore has considerably gone up.

According to a report last week, [source the excise department] “in 2018 sale of liquor in India rose by 10%” after two lean years. The report further says that “the sales volume of Indian Made Foreign Liquor [IMFL] rose to 359 million cases in 2018, the highest since 2012. Some of the reasons for slump in sales in the previous years included the following. The Supreme Court had banned sale of liquor near state and central highways in 2016 which resulted in the closure of thousands of liquor shops. The decision was later revised giving some consolation to the alcohol industry. A decision by the Congress led UDF government in Kerala before the May 2016 elections had led to the closure of all bars except those in the five star category. This move became an electoral issue and one of the main reasons for the UDF government losing power was the closing down of bars. Alcohol industry therefore is often affected by political changes. For example in 1977 an almost obstinate prohibitionist Prime Minister Morarji Desai came down heavily on the industry. Similarly in 2014 the Danish brewer Carlsberg was invited by the then Chief Minister of Bihar to invest in his state and the company invested heavily to set up a plant. Three years later the same Chief Minister after some political realignments declared prohibition in the state leaving Carlsberg high and dry!

Compared to Western countries the per capita consumption of ten or more liters of liquor annually, per capita consumption of liquor in India may not be in double figures. But the country’s large population means large volumes of alcohol consumption. No wonder almost all alcohol manufacturers have opened their breweries and shops in . Carlsberg, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, SAB Miller, Heineken and many other multinational companies are here to be part of the estimated 40 billion dollar industry.

So far we have been dealing with foreign and Indian Made Foreign Liquor [IMFL] consumed by the upper strata of the society. There is also a notable shift of the lower middle class also into this category. A majority of problem drinkers unfortunately belong to the poorer sections, essentially the daily wage earners, agricultural and industrial workers. Across the country there are traditional brews like ‘chhang’ [from barley or rice] ‘feni’[ from toddy and cashew apples] in Goa and Kerala, brews from indigenous flowers like ‘Mahuva’ available in many parts of the country etc. The killer hooch brewed from spirit, intoxicating and even toxic substances by underworld gangs is popular all over the country because such brews are more heady and cheap – easily available through illicit networks. Most illicit liquor deaths are attributed to such deadly brews and the tragedy that killed almost a 100 people in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand last week is reportedly after consumption of illicit liquor.

Any regulation or prohibition is not the answer to end hooch tragedies. The job of the police, excise and other enforcing agencies is to ensure that they are ever vigilant and take strict action against illicit liquor makers and bootleggers and prevent them from pursuing their nefarious activities. Many state governments have stringent punishments including the death penalty for illicit liquor makers whose brews kill people.

More importantly, at the government and civil society levels systematic interventions are needed to discourage drinking, use effective communication strategies to create awareness with specific messages for different age groups, highlight the health hazards of alcoholism, promote healthy food and drink habits, treat persons with drinking problems humanely and empathetically instead of looking down upon them or treating them as social outcasts. Proper treatment and rehabilitation facilities are needed for saving the addicts. A lot of people hit the bottle due to different kinds of frustrations or just to get rid of boredom. Healthy lifestyles, sports and entertainment, creative pursuits, volunteering for community work at the community level can help people from keeping away from alcohol.

Drinking / alcoholism is a behavioral, psycho-social, medical, spiritual problem and is considered as a family disease by the WHO. Those addicted need treatment, medication and counseling. It affects the immediate family as an addict to alcohol squanders all his money on liquor, neglects his children, indulges in violence and causes domestic violence. So the wife and children of an alcoholic also need counseling and interaction with self help groups. These are all easier said than done. What is needed is to empower communities by government and local self government agencies and civil society initiatives. Peer support programmes like Alcoholic Anonymous [AA] since 1935 has been enabling “its members to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety” through mutual aid fellowship.

Deaths due to drinking spurious liquor is a major social, political and economic issue. Those in power need to address this problem as a major national problem.