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Barely a month after the Tamil Nadu government stated in the Assembly that there had been no hooch tragedies in the state for 14 years, two incidents of illicit liquor, claiming 22 lives so far have put paid to these official claims.
The two simultaneous incidents were reported from Villupuram and Chengalpattu districts, with a toll of 14 and eight respectively. As on May 16, 2023, over 50 people are still in hospital after consuming the deadly brew. The victims belonging to Marakkanam (Villupuram district) were from the fishermen community while those from Perukkarani in Chithamur block in Chengalapattu were members of a tribal community.
According to the victims’ families, the tribal men were employed as wage labour in tasks such as felling trees and their employer supplied arrack to them, probably in lieu of wages.
For the fisher victims in Marakkanam on the ECR, alcoholism was a way of life. Enquiries have revealed that the fishermen, who set out to the sea around 3 am, would be done with the day’s work around 11 am. After lunch and siesta, they would go for drinks, with the sessions often lasting late into the night. The sale and consumption of illicit liquor has been going on in these areas in tandem with the government-run Tasmac outlets.
According to the victims’ families, the tribal men were employed as wage labour in tasks such as felling trees and their employer supplied arrack to them, probably in lieu of wages
Devaki, wife of Sankar, one of the victims, said, “That night he went to bed, fully drunk and in the middle of night, woke up, complaining of chest pain and his body started shaking. We found the men in the neighbouring houses also taking ill like this. We took them all to hospital where they finally succumbed.”
In the wake of last week’s incident, the government has cracked the whip against the police for the department’s failure to contain illicit brewing. Villupuram SP Srinatha has been suspended and Chengalpattu SP Pradeep kept in the waiting list. Besides, seven policemen including two Marakkanam Inspectors and two Sub-Inspectors and the Chengalpattu Inspector and Sub-Inspector have been suspended. The investigation into the incidents has been transferred to the CB-CID. The National Human Rights Commission has meanwhile issued a suo moto notice to the state government over the 22 deaths.
In both incidents, methanol, a chemical used for industrial purposes, was the killer. District Collectors and the SPs are tasked with monitoring the sale and use of methanol in industrial units. However, it is alleged that avaricious middlemen divert the chemical from factories and sell it to the illicit brewers who, in turn, mix it with arrack. Most of the consumers of such arrack are from the marginalized sections of society.
Not surprisingly, the hooch deaths have sparked off a political blame game. Opposition parties including the Annamalai-led TN BJP and EPS-led AIADMK have been vocal in their criticism of the government and slammed the compensation of Rs.10 lakh announced for the families of victims.
As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, liquor (policy) has always been mixed with politics. Since the early 1970s when prohibition —introduced in 1937 during the premiership of Rajaji —was lifted under the Karunanidhi regime, liquor has always been used as a weapon by the opposition to attack the government. And successive Dravidian CMs — Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa — have justified the government’s sale of liquor as a move to prevent illicit liquor. However, the periodic instances of hooch deaths have raised questions over that claim, with the recent twin incidents exposing the lacuna in the government’s measures to eliminate illegal brewing.
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