Scandals of spurious liquor
Increasing the availability of cheap, safe and legal liquor is the only way to counter the ever-present problem of deadly hooch related deaths in India
The scandal of spurious liquor, which claimed 14 lives in Ujjain only last week and nearly 120 lives in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh a few weeks earlier, has become a recurrent phenomenon from which we seem to have learnt nothing. Every time such a tragedy strikes some part of the country, we tend to dismiss it as an occasional bout or hiccup.
Police investigations are launched, sometimes an odd bunch of operators are hauled up, even punished. Holy sermons are delivered against the 'deviant' drinkers and bits of monetary help given to poor widows and children left behind. But soon all is forgotten, till the next time.
Shying away from discussing and analysing the issues in all their sociological and psychological ramifications has become the norm. That module must be broken and squarely confronted. The idea of a drink, for those who like it or need it, is both sociological and psychological. Its acceptance or rejection varies from continent to continent and culture to culture. There is no single majoritarian formula that fits all.
Let us admit that some people in every society have different sociological and psychological lifestyles than that of the majoritarian milieu. Even the poorest of the poor have different preferences and tastes. A just society must accommodate everybody, each within his/her means.
The way to avoid recurrent hooch disasters is to make safe drinking reasonably affordable and free from taboo. En masse hooch tragedies of the type witnessed in India are unheard of in Europe, America and many other parts of the world. Some people there may contract liver problems for excessive wine or spirits consumption individually and separately but not in groups and clusters driven chiefly by price factor as in India. Excess of anything can cause problems. Even excess of milk, ice cream and other dairy products can lead to diarrhoea and other complications. Excessive drinking of liquor is as bad as excessive consumption of anything else. In India excessive drinking is not the problem, rather it is the lack of drink at a low enough price within the reach of poor labourers who sometimes need it after a hard day's back-breaking work.
The way to tackle hooch tragedies is not to ban drinks but to make safer, unadulterated drinks available at affordable prices. Prohibition has failed all over the world umpteen times from Ujjain to Punjab and Gujarat, the so-called dry state, where it is available despite the ban, but at the risk of doubtful quality at the risk of high price and danger to life itself.
The reasonably priced quality drink can be affordable. After all, the price is driven by the government or official excise markings. For instance, it is well known that the production cost of a bottle of Scotch whisky is only about one sterling pound while the rest of the nine pounds or more goes into excise revenue coffers. Wines and beers in Europe and elsewhere are within easy reach of the common tippler who is not a drunkard as is too often assumed in India and some other parts of the world.
Nevertheless, India's moonshine market driven by the lowest of low prices will always be a temptation hard to resist by the least well off sections of the society. Illicit liquor vendors who have no compunction in using methanol or denatured spirit used in the paint industry will always be on the prowl. The way to beat such vendors of toxic brews, which sell for almost one-tenth of the price of the legitimate product, is not police investigations after deaths but by making drinks available at cheaper and affordable prices at the ground level.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of ' India and Britannia — an abiding affair' and other writings. Views expressed are personal