Recurring Hooch Tragedies: Tamil Nadu Has All Problems Of Prohibition Without Actually Having Prohibition

K Balakumar

Jun 20, 2024, 08:05 PM | Updated Jun 21, 2024, 10:17 AM IST

People lined up outside a TASMAC outlet.
People lined up outside a TASMAC outlet.
  • Illicit arrack usually thrives in places of prohibition.
  • In Tamil Nadu, where the State-run TASMAC is running the liquor business, death because of illegal brew is a double whammy and exposes the corrupt system.
  • Tamil Nadu is not the leading consumer of alcohol in India. In fact, it is not even among the top five States. But more hooch tragedies seem to occur more regularly here than anywhere else in the country.  

    In May last year, around 30 people were killed and several lost their eyesight in an illegal brew tragedy at Marakkanam in Villupuram district.

    Immediately after that, several persons were arrested, huge quantities of hooch were seized and many officials were transferred. 

    A year later, nothing has changed. 

    In the same Villupuram district, at Kallakurichi, more than 25 people have been killed and many more are battling for life in a shamefully similar tragedy involving illicit brew. 

    Again, officials are being changed. To be sure, arrests and seizures will be made now, too. But alas, there is no real guarantee that such things won’t repeat. 

    Hooch killings in a State where there is no prohibition is  difficult to understand. More so in Tamil Nadu, where the official selling of liquor is vested with the State-run TASMAC. 

    In other places where alcohol sale is through private enterprises, it can be argued that they ensure that spurious unlicensed stuff is not all that rampant. For, these private players have a vested interest in keeping their profits intact and stable. 

    A monopolistic TASMAC, which is the State's cash cow, can hardly be bothered to notice what's happening on the side. In that sense, the illicit liquor tragedies, ironically, make another compelling case for the State government to let go of its liquor business.

    Villupuram the hub of bootlegging business

     You don't have to be an expert on State liquor dynamics to know that the districts of Villupuram and Chengalpet in the northern part of State have always been a hotbed for bootleggers. The cruel irony is Villupuram district also has the second highest number of TASMAC outlets - 290 - after Tiruvannamalai.

    The Kalvarayan Hill area, near Kallakurichi where the recent tragedy has unfolded, can be termed the headquarters of this unscrupulous trade. 

    A video clip of the now arrested YouTuber Savukku Shankar has surfaced where he openly names specific ruling party honchos who are running this contraband business. 

    It is said that you can get liquor at any time --- including midnight. Apparently, there is a system in place where the local village chieftains are known to give the illegal brewing rights through tender. It is that well entrenched. 

    It is claimed that local hill tribes people, whose traditional practice involves tapping of toddy (which is banned in the State), are unwittingly used in this nefarious setup. Locally brewed liquor and non-vegetarian food is part of any celebration in these parts.  

    But make no mistake about it, tapped toddy is not the issue here. While it is wrong, it is still harmless. The forbidden killer drink actually involves methanol. And that is where the laxity (and alleged involvement) of the State machinery and its lords comes into picture. 

    For, since 2002, methanol, the principal ingredient in most hooch tragedies, is under the ambit of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act, 1937. Amendments have also been made to the Tamil Nadu Denatured Spirit, Methyl Alcohol and Varnish (French Polish) Rules, 1959, to maintain control over methanol supply. So the question is how do the bootleggers get methanol in such large quantities when its sale is actually calibrated by the government.

    DMK must end its cruel politics on liquor

    The number of hooch deaths also seem to spike when the DMK is in power. As per the data on spurious/illicit liquor deaths from national crime records bureau (NCRB), Tamil Nadu witnessed 1,509 deaths from 2005 to 2014. In the same time period, Karnataka witnessed 1,421 deaths, while a total of 1,364 deaths were reported in Punjab and 843 in Gujarat. 

    For the bulk of the 2010s, there were no such major incidents in the State. Tamil Nadu reported no hooch deaths from 2016 to 2019. There were 20 in 2020, and six in 2021. And in the last two years, it has unfortunately zoomed again. The government of the day, which is in charge of both supply and its control, cannot escape without an adequate response.

    The recurring tragedies also make us focus on the larger problem --- the ills of liquor in general. In today's cultural climate, it is tough to speak against drinking as it has been completely normalised through films, which in fact glorify drinking as some kind of macho and fun endeavour. It is a fact that the idea of prohibition is unworkable as a State policy. Tamil Nadu has a tortuous history of clamping bans on liquor and then lifting them later. 

    Prohibition has seldom provided desired results, either in Tamil Nadu or anywhere else. But the duplicity of the political parties to use it as an election promise is callous. 

    The DMK had claimed that among its first task upon being voted to power would be to close the TASMAC outlets.  So, it is doubly galling to see that DMK not only not keep up its poll promise of shuttering down TASMAC but also do nothing even as such hooch tragedies happen unabated. 

    As per national statistics made available two years back, close to 30 per cent of men in India consume alcohol, and consumption by men is highest in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu, where in certain areas, over 45 per cent of men regularly consume liquor. The sociological and economic problems of liquor, especially among the poor, are well known. That Tamil Nadu is the leader in road accidents, many of which happen under the influence of liquor, is another sobering and sad story. 

    As can be seen, illegal brew can kill directly. Legal libation can take life indirectly. To play politics on such a life and death matter is inhuman. But that is what the current dispensation in the State is exactly doing.

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