Baruipur, spurious liquor, 12 dead … bits and pieces from the television news floated into my ears, even as I tried hard not to pay attention. After all, people who drink poison for a tipple, deserve the gruesome death that claims their lives at regular intervals, and we are by now generally sensitised to such incidents of mass obliterations. That such accidents do not occur more frequently, given the dynamics of the trade (read ground realities), really being the question that baffles the likes of many like me.
I know I am sounding obnoxious, insensitive, even brutal. But look at the mainline media – the images of chest thumping wails of the bereaved; angry crowds demolishing the “theks”; sermonising politicians with sadistic smiles; an odd editorial extolling the virtues of abstinence; and, the customary promise of an ex-gratia payment depending upon political expedience. Then? Cut to the next Breaking Story. Do they even care?
Let us face the facts. Illicitly brewed liquor drives the economy in vast swathes of the state. The nexus between all those who are purportedly supposed to “police” consumption, the local politicians and the brewers, is all pervasive. They are emboldened by the fact that the demand for the brew is ever increasing which ensures a steady revenue stream. Resources, that empower the brewers of hooch with the ability to buy ascent and if need be, to run their rollers over dissent. With Money and Muscle in abundance, can the Mafia be far behind?
Thus “organised”, illicit booze flows thicker than Mother’s milk – ensnaring the wage earner, destroying relationships, putting extra burdens on the health system, robbing the Government of its revenues, aiding criminality and helping the parallel, black economy to gain in girth. Knee jerk reactions to Hooch-tragedies – from the call for abstinence, to greater policing cannot be a solution to the menace. It never was and it will never be.
As long as the poor man will want his fire-water after a hard-day’s work, as long as the Sun and the Moon will continue to shine, there will be a steady demand for booze at the bottom of the economic pyramid – like, I dare say, everywhere else – and unscrupulous people will work to meet the demand. You and I cannot wish this away. And, every uneducated, irrational move that we make to address this anomaly will only go to strengthen the parallel system, whose writ is far stronger than we can even imagine. It’s a hydra headed monster out there, physically cutting off one head can never be the solution as a thousand heads will sprout in the place of every head removed.
I was talking to Monoranjan Roy, Chairman of Pincon Spirits, the largest manufacturer of country liquor in the country. “Let us be practical enough to accept the fact that the menace of illegally brewed, illicit liquor cannot be eradicated in the short term. At the best, it can be contained” he said. “And to do that, we must ensure the easy availability of tax-paid, country liquor that is far safer as a health option to the masses. Again, strictly from the practical point of view, we have to ensure the rationalisation of the taxes that country liquor attracts, for this segment of the market is extremely price sensitive and often switches off to the illegally brewed stuff, for a few Rupees, obvious health hazards notwithstanding. And finally, there must be a sustained campaign to spread awareness among the drinking classes about not only the dangers of illicitly brewed liquor – call it “Cholai” if you may – but also about the advantages of drinking the legally permissible alternatives”.
There are compelling reasons for the Government to pay heed to what Monoranjan Roy and other voices from the “organised” industry is saying. For one, taxes (read excise duty primarily) from alcohol constitute a major source of revenue to the state. By rationalising this revenue stream, the Government will not only take good care of its coffer, but also deal a body blow to the hooch-syndicates and the criminal activities they help foster. By inducing daily tipplers to switch from the certainly hazardous brews to the regulated (read quality controlled) country liquor (IMIL for the un-initiated), the burden on the already fragile state-run health system will also be reduced to a very great extent. All this, not to mention the destruction of the police-politician-local ruffian nexus and the thriving “black economy”, whose sheer numbers are mindboggling to put things mildly.
As for liquor tragedies continuing to strike with monotonous regularity – such instances will also reduce to a very great extent along with the “collateral damage” of the lost lives, however insensitive that may sound.
An enlightened and practical approach, spread over time is the answer. Remember, populist gimmicks and blow-hot, blow-cold responses have not worked anywhere in the world. Chances are, they won’t work here either.