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'Hafta is All You Need': As Death Toll Rises to 159, Locals Tell How Liquor Sale Continues in Tea Estates

Representative Image.(Image: Reuters)

Representative Image.(Image: Reuters)

A large number of labourers of two tea estates of Golaghat and Jorhat districts had fallen ill after drinking spurious liquor on Thursday night and 12 of them had died the same night.

Guwahati: Assam's biggest hooch tragedy, in which at least 159 people have died so far in Golaghat and Jorhat districts, has exposed the alleged nexus between state's enforcement agencies and the illegal spirituous liquor sellers in the tea garden areas.

More shockingly, clandestine liquor dens in the garden areas were continuously selling alcohol even as the death toll shot up with every passing minute. Hospitals in the two districts are also struggling to accommodate over 200 patients, who were taken ill and are struggling with their lives.

Balindra Ojha, a worker from the Halmira tea estate in Golaghat district where some 99 people lost their lives, described how amidst ongoing police crackdown on illicit liquor across the state, workers in the tea garden have been "sipping death".

Citing his neighbour Mahindra Telenga's case, Ojha said, "Mahindra died on Sunday, a day after his younger brother Anupam Telenga passed away following consumption of the 'poisonous' drink. Upset with the loss, Mahindra too drank a few glasses of liquor after the last rites of his brother. A couple of hours later Mahindra died.”

Angry with the inaction of the authorities, Ojha and his friends decided to raid some of the illegal country liquor selling points in the garden surroundings on Monday.

The group of villagers succeeded to destroy almost 100 litres of suspected toxic country liquors and handed over some five villagers to the police. The liquor was stored under the ground. “These are only a few selling points. There are over 30 selling and several producing points in the area. The excise department, police and everyone knows about it but do nothing. A lot of money is involved in the racket,” said Nipun, a local.

Villagers claimed that enforcement agencies collect 'hafta or protection money from the illegal liquor sellers in return of no action.

Dhiraj Goala, assistant general secretary of All Tea Tribe Students Association (ATTSA), said, “It’s surprising that even after so many deaths, sale of spurious liquor is on. One person from Borhloa tea estate of Jorhat was admitted on Monday after he consumed liquor this morning.”

In Borhola area, under Titabor subdivision of Jorhat district, some 78 people have died so far after consuming the alleged toxic country-made liquor.

The opposition parties of Congress and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) too came down heavily on government during the state assembly session on Monday. While former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and other Congress leaders staged a protest inside the assembly holding placards describing the failure of the BJP rules state government, AGP president Atul Bora said, “If the government doesn’t take necessary steps to stop the sale of illegal hooch in the gardens and punish those who are accountable for the tragedy, temporary clampdown on these liquor sellers will not give desired results.”

Assam Congress demanded the resignation of state’s Excise Minister Parimal Suklabaidya and Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal as well as a magisterial inquiry into the matter.

Earlier on Sunday, Suklabaidya faced the wrath of the local residents while he was visiting the Golaghat Civil Hospital to take stock of the patients admitted in the hospital. The Adivasi student groups and locals gheraoed the minister and shouted slogans against him.

The students’ body also called for a shutdown in the tea gardens of the state on February 26 and demanded the government to pay Rs 10 lakh to the kin of the victim families.

However, sources in the excise department claimed that a previous alert by the department was allegedly ignored by authorities concerned of these two districts. Excise Department PRO S Pandey said, “In fact, on February 9, the department had issued an alert to all districts to keep strict vigilance on the sale of such illegal liquor. Already two excise officials were suspended and raids are also on.”

Following the deaths and a subsequent police crackdown on the illegal liquor selling points in the state, over 20,000 litres of illegal liquor was destroyed and some 39 persons have been apprehended.

In the capital city of Guwahati too, at least 800 litres of illicit country liquor was seized. Additional superintendent of police (Golaghat) Dhruba Borah said, “Illicit liquor vendors have been booked under criminal conspiracy, causing hurt by means of poison and causing death by negligence of the Indian penal code.”

A team of forensic expert has too visited Borholla in Jorhat district and collected samples from police for examination. They also examined some patients at Borholla and collected samples. Experts suspected that instead of ethyl alcohol, poisonous methyl alcohol, which is commonly available, was used in the liquor which claimed the casualties. A forensic official said that they were in touch with their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to find out about any possible similarities in deaths in these two states. Over 100 people had died after consuming illicit liquor in the two states earlier this month. “The reports are awaited,” the official said.

For many villagers, the use of poor quality jaggery, meant for cattle feed, in making hooch might also be a reason behind the tragedy. “Many died after drinking the liquor which they had prepared at their own homes. It raised questions about the ingredients used in the making of the hooch. Earlier, illegal liquor producers used the wasted jaggery and other harmful materials like urea and other chemicals like rat poison to prepare the hooch. But we heard that these producers are now using methyl alcohol and other poisonous chemicals too in a disproportionate way to produce and earn more,” said Robin Lakra, a garden worker from Golaghat.

Meantime, police raided several godowns in Golaghat and Jorhat and recovered jaggery, alum, and urea, the main ingredients used in making the illicit liquor.

All Assam Students Union (AASU)’s general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi said, “It is a very shameful incident for a civilized nation. We have demanded eviction of liquor dens, the closer of the liquor trade, required treatment for victims and adequate compensation for the next of kin of the victims.”

Deputy Commissioner (Golaghat) Dhiren Hazarika said, “87 people have died in the district till 6 pm on Sunday.” Doctors have conducted post mortem to 51 so far. In Jorhat, some 160 patients are undergoing treatment at Jorhat Medical College Hospital (JMCH) and the conditions of 16 are critical.

Meanwhile, several civil society groups and members of Golaghat Gurudwara has been providing food to the villagers. “Since no one is supposed to cook for at least three days when someone in the family dies and now almost every family has lost someone, virtually the entire village is not cooking. So we came here to provide them food,” said the volunteers.

Locals informed that they are running short of woods to perform the last rites of the deceased. Reports claimed that due to the shortage, many bodies were buried too.