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Hooch Tragedy in India – Why spurious liquor is a mass killer? Hooch incidents – causes & solutions

Hooch Tragedy in India – Why spurious liquor is a mass killer? Hooch incidents – causes & solutions

Relevance:

  • GS 2 || Polity || Constitutional Framework || Directive Principles of State Policy

Why in the news?

A Gopalganj court in Bihar has recently awarded death sentence to nine persons and life imprisonment to four women in connection with the Khajurbani hooch tragedy in which 21 people had died after consuming spurious liquor in August 2016.

What is ‘Hooch’ or illicit liquor?

  • Illicit liquor, or adulterated liquor is referred to as ‘hooch’ in general conversation.
  • Hooch or Spurious liquors mainly include:
    1. Illicit liquor (unauthorised preparation, not fit for human consumption and not complying with the BIS standards) and
    2. Denatured alcohol (prepared for industrial uses and is rendered entirely unfit for human consumption by adding denaturants).
  • Liquor prepared locally from coco-palm, rice, molasses or jaggery, Mahua, etc., are sometimes fortified with industrial alcohol to increase the alcohol concentration or to meet the demand.
  • Consumption of such liquor also causes poisoning tragedies if it is mixed with methyl alcohol.
  • The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), in a latest report has noted that the illicit market for alcohol consumption has grown since 2010 and this huge increase has cost legal distillers 24,140 crore.

What is Methyl Poisoning?

  • Alcoholic beverages are made by fermentation of sugary and starchy substances, followed by distillation to increase alcohol concentration. The active ingredient in them is ethyl alcohol or ethanol.
  • Illicit alcohol in contrast to other permitted liquors, is produced under unregulated circumstances and is often adulterated with chemicals like methanol, organo-phosphorus compounds and ethanol to save costs.
  • Among the above-mentioned chemicals, Methyl alcohol (methanol) is a commonly used adulterant because of its appearance and taste similar to ethyl alcohol and its easy availability. It has also been concluded that it was the reason behind major hooch tragedies.
  • Methyl alcohol (methanol) is generally used for furniture polish and it is a toxic compound.
  • Of the estimated 5 billion litres of alcohol consumed every year in India, about 40% is illegally produced.

How Hooch tragedies take place?

  • After consumption of such adulterated alcohol drinks, consumption, Methanol is changed into formic acid inside the body. The accumulation of formic acid in the body adversely affects various organ systems.
  • In normal cases it leads to dizziness and vomiting but as Methyl alcohol is extremely toxic — in extreme cases, 10 ml can cause blindness and 30 ml can cause death within 10 to 30 hours.
  • While in case of normal alcohol, more than 5% of blood intake causes death, in case of alcohol mixed with methyl alcohol, consumption of mere 1-1.5% of methyl alcohol of blood would end up as death of the individual.

Hooch tragedies in India:

  • Hooch deaths have been repeated across India in the last few years.
  • According to the latest figures from India’s National Crime Records Bureau, 1,522 people died of drinking spurious liquor in 2015.
  • Nearly 136 people had been reported dead in Ahmedabad after the consumption of hooch in July 2009.
  • In 2011, a hooch tragedy in Sangrampur in West Bengal had claimed the lives of 172 people.
  • Only recently, more than 100 people died because of consumption of adulterated alcohol in Punjab.
  • 114 deaths were reported from villages across two districts in Assam due to intake of adulterated alcohol.

Reasons:

  • Heavy taxation: Legal alcohol is taxed heavily making it unaffordable for the poor and habitual drinkers. Price of illicit liquor is very low due to its low-cost production and no taxation, making it a favourite alcoholic beverage for lower strata.
  • Prohibition: Some states like Gujarat, Bihar, Nagaland and Lakshadweep, have complete ban on production, consumption and transportation of alcohol. This results in more production and smuggling of illicit alcohols in an unregulated manner. Illicit liquor preparation and sale of such liquor earns a huge profit to the main bootleggers. Patients and relatives are hesitant in disclosing the real facts about consumption of liquor due to its corollary like fear of police action.
  • Lack of coordination among ministries: In a 2013 report released by the Public Health Foundation of India, the question of lack of coordination with various central departments is mentioned.
    • While the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MoSJE) looks after alcohol use prevention programs, developing networks and capacity building for alcohol prevention and control, and monitoring, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) runs de-addiction centres.
  • Inadequate surveillance and political nexus: Inadequate or lack of specific inputs about production of Hooch at local level. Political pressure to condone such incidents till such issues become explosive are also responsible for recurring of such issues.
  • Lack of medical treatment: Due to fear of police action, the victims do not seek medical intervention immediately after consumption; rather they start experimenting with homemade remedies and seek treatment only when the condition becomes worse.
  • Lack of awareness about the evil effects of illicit liquor also leads to reoccurrence of such tragedies.
  • Lack of a national uniform policy: No national policy even after repeated occurrences in various parts of the country. Some states do have policies against illegal Hooch making and distribution but enforcing mechanisms is not adequately stringent to create deterrence.

Relevant Constitution Provisions:

Our constitution through various provisions has implicitly and explicitly directed states to take action that can reduce the amount of or eliminate the alcohol consumption:

  • Directive Principle of States Policy: Article 47 envisages duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health. It says that the State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.
  • Article 21 provides for Right to life and liberty, which as per Supreme Court does not mean merely ‘animal existence’ but living with ‘human dignity’ and consumption of liquor leads to degradation of human dignity.
  • Article 38 envisages the function of the Republic is to secure, inter alia, social, economic and political justice. i.e. not only legal justice but socioeconomic justice as well.

Legal jurisdiction over alcohol prohibition:

Alcohol prohibition is a state subject in India with each state having full control of alcohol legislation, state excise rates and the organisation of production and sale of alcohol. There is thus significant variation in prohibition across states and over time within states.

Recommendations by Hooch tragedy commission of Gujarat:

  • Increase the literacy level: The commission recommended to elevate the standards of literacy in slum areas and rehabilitation of addicts/offenders duly supported by meaningful alternative social and clinical therapy/ activities.
  • Awareness programmes: Awareness through entertainment is also one of the best ways to bring down addiction level.
  • More specific rules to plug the loopholes: State Government should frame specific Rules, particularly for manufacture, transport, import of methyl alcohol rules. The existing rules are not adequate.
  • Politicians and police nexus: Steps to break the nexus between Police and bootleggers must be taken. A speedy and effective mechanism to investigate the matters should be placed.
  • Adequate availability of chemicals: Proper supply of antidotes (Ethyl alcohol and fomepizole) and instruments for diagnosis to the hospitals should be ensured and doctors must be trained to handle these tragedies.

Global efforts to prevent tragedies due to illicit alcohol:

  • In 2010, the World Health Organisation (WHO) came up with its global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol that was adopted by 193 United Nations member countries.
  • Stakeholders from civil society came together to form what was called the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance (IAPA), which collaborated with the National Institute for Social Defence and the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment.
  • The three bodies followed the guidelines laid down by WHO and designed a national strategy for reduction of alcohol abuse.
  • But the status of implementation of their recommendations have been less than satisfactory.

Way ahead:

  • A multi-pronged plan is needed to prevent the sale and consumption of toxic alcohol.
  • As the World Health Organisation (WHO) points out, governments should regulate the quality of legal alcoholic drinks, while actively tracing and tracking illicit alcohol.
  • Illicit liquor sale should be curbed with zero tolerance, and consumption should be discouraged through social campaigns.
  • Any reported case of adulterated alcohol must be investigated thoroughly and fairly and the culprits must be booked immediately without any delay.
  • At the same time, it is equally important to upgrade the capacities of the health system to handle victims of toxic alcohol.
  • Timely treatment through haemodialysis, infusion of sodium bicarbonate and ethyl alcohol must be availed adequately and timely.
  • Even though alcohol regulation is under the State list in the Constitution, a National policy on illicit alcohol regulation is required to address the frequent tragic incidents.National policy with deterrent measures should be enacted to streamline enforcement across the states.
  • After all, Hooch deaths aren’t a one-off incident caused by negligence of a certain government, it’s a collective failure of conscience and method.

Model Mains Question:

1.Discuss the reasons behind the growing illicit alcohol drinks in the country. Do you think prohibition is an effective deterrent against the tragic hooch deaths? Give reasons