As a landlocked state, Madhya Pradesh relies heavily on revenues from sales of alcoholic beverages, but in recent days the liquor mafia has emerged as a big challenge for the government here, especially after the deaths this month of two dozen people who consumed hooch in Morena district.
The incident came weeks after 14 people died in a similar tragedy in Ujjain. Some labourers had consumed a locally made intoxicant Poltli Jhinjhar.
Much to the embarrassment of administration, constables Shaikh Anwar and Nawaz of Kharakuan police station in Ujjain were arrested in connection with the sale of spurious liquor and later a doctor Junaid and a medical store salesman Irshad too were held by the police.
Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, taking swift action, had removed superintendent of police Manoj Singh and additional SP Rupesh Dwivedi.
Three bootleggers – Yunus, Sikandar and Gabbar – who were arrested after the incident were slapped with the National Security Act (NSA).
However, the incident at Morena has put the state government’s efforts under the scanner.
In the past nine months, as many as 46 people have died after consuming spurious liquor in the state.
At present, around a dozen are undergoing treatment in different government hospitals in Morena and Gwalior after consuming spurious liquor, deputy inspector general, Chambal Range, Rajesh Hingankar told news agency PTI.
“The death toll is 24 now as four more persons died after consuming spurious liquor,” he added.
Some residents of Manpur and Pahawali villages in Morena consumed a white-coloured liquor last Monday night. Later, people in some nearby villages also fell ill after consuming spurious liquor, police said.
A three-member team headed by additional chief secretary (Home) Rajesh Rajora had reached Manpur village on Thursday to carry out an investigation into the incident.
The other members of the committee are additional director general of police (CID) A Sai Manohar and deputy inspector general Mithilesh Shukla.
The SIT will submit its report to the state government on January 19. Calling the incident “painful” on Wednesday, CM Chouhan promised a drive against the liquor mafia in the state.
Meanwhile, excise officers and policemen of the area too face action.
After the incident, residents slammed the administration, alleging that the mafia was openly producing sub-standard liquor and it was in the knowledge of officials.
In all, seven locals involved in illegal liquor trade have been booked on charges of culpable homicide.
Observers say the district administration’s slackness can be gauged from the fact that the liquor mafia had established over 20 manufacturing units and even had packing machines installed in them. However, the police and excise department was turning a blind eye towards these malpractices.
The excise department was also suffering losses to the tune of around Rs 30 lakh per day due to the illicit liquor trade.
Rural areas are seeing liquor manufacturing units being installed in households and the product is supplied to nearby districts.
Locals say these units are functioning under political patronage so police and the excise department refrain from undertaking any major action.
Sources say that staffers from the government distillery in Morena are also hand in glove with the liquor mafia. The situation is somewhat similar in neighbouring Bhind district.
However, a crackdown was started in Morena and nearby districts by the administration after the latest hooch tragedy.
But the audacious liquor mafia assaulted police and excise officials in Rajgarh district during a drive on Friday.
Hooch tragedies have been reported in recent days from Barwani, Khargone and Ratlam as well.
Sources say hooch production has surged in Madhya Pradesh following a liquor ban during the lockdown period. As liquor shops were allowed to open, the excise department and traders also made money selling desi and Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) much above the maximum selling price.
This pushed buyers towards cheap spurious liquor.
In Morena, locally made desi liquor which sold for Rs 50 a quarter while the desi liquor which had an MSP of Rs 75 for a quarter at authorised shops was being sold at Rs 110 a quarter.
Nidhi Jain, the district excise officer of Morena affirmed that the department was receiving liquor being sold above MSP at authorised shops and claimed that those shopkeepers found guilty will be punished with cancellation of licence.
The authorised liquor shops had lowered the rates shortly after the hooch tragedy claimed lives in Morena.
The availability of hooch has become so widespread that excise and police personnel are still seizing spurious liquor from farmlands in large quantities.
The SIT team which is yet to submit a report to the chief minister, has reportedly concluded that the spurious liquor had traces of methyl alcohol.
SIT chief Rajora slammed the excise department officers in a meeting in Gwalior on Thursday, saying the sale of illicit liquor was going on openly and no one was there to obstruct it.
Spurious liquor has been received from Gwalior, Shivpuri, Bhind, Rajgarh, Datia and other parts.
In districts like Dewas and Khandwa, a glass of locally made desi liquor is available at Rs 10. There are various districts where the spurious liquor is available in polythene pouches, glasses or bottles at roadside shops.
The Congress led by MPCC chief Kamal Nath had attacked the Shivraj Chouhan government, saying even if ration can’t reach far-flung places in MP, liquor especially the illicit variety is easily available and this has exposed the true character of the BJP government.
Liquor policy change on the cards
After the hooch tragedies in Ujjain and Morena, the state government is pondering over a plan to amend sections 34 and 49A of the Excise Act, provisioning harsher punishment for those involved in production of illicit liquor, excise commissioner Rajiv Chandra Dubey told the the media in Gwalior on Friday. ACS Home Rajesh Rajora and Dubey said that the state government is pondering over altering the excise policy in which smaller groups will be allowed to run liquor shops instead of allowing major groups to have monopoly in the trade. The Congress government during its tenure had changed the liquor policy, allowing a handful of groups to run the liquor shops which led to a steep surge in prices of liquor in Madhya Pradesh.