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In the wee hours of July 24, daredevil accomplices of a bootlegger scaled the walls of a police station in Gandhinagar and drove away with a van carrying 204 bottles of liquor. The vehicle, abandoned by the driver on being challenged by a police patrol on the national highway, had been seized hours earlier. A month earlier, in Botad on June 24, a liquor-laden SUV turned around and rammed a police jeep that was giving chase. Two policemen were killed, many injured. And in another instance of bootlegger menace, on June 12, Amit Chanderpal, 27, was beaten to death for objecting to the sale of liquor near his house, not far from Sabarmati Ashram. His anguished neighbours went on a retaliatory rampage and set the bootleggers’ vehicles on fire.
In honour of the Mahatma, Gujarat has been a dry state since its creation. But to this day, liquor of all kinds, from hooch to the best foreign labels, is available, like it always has been. Bootlegging is worth Rs 30,000 crore annually, by conservative estimates. There are huge payoffs to police and politicians. Haftas are at well-defined rates; it’s even decided how much liquor bootleggers will turn in so that police can keep up a pretence of activity by showing seizures in the record books.
Proof, if any was required, came from chief minister Anandiben Patel, who also holds the home portfolio. In a written reply to the state assembly, she said 42,000 bottles of Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) were seized in Ahmedabad between June 2012 and May 2013. But from June 2013 to May 2014, the figure shot up nearly three times to 1.14 lakh bottles. Possible reason? It was election season, bringing both increased supply for vote-buying and increased vigilance by the Election Commission. And these were figures for Ahmedabad alone.
Ingenious methods are used to smuggle in and transport booze. A retired superintendent of police, who has worked in Ahmedabad and south Gujarat, says bootleggers conceal the liquor in ways that are either too simple or too complex. He says that in Surat, carriers, mainly fisherfolk, bring liquor to the city by early morning buses, roofs laden with plastic bags containing liquor packed in football bladders. Nivruti Lokhande, a former municipal corporator of Surat, says there’s nothing surprising about the availability of liqour in the city. “Surat is the biggest business hub of Gujarat and the average Surti is a garrulous guy who works hard and plays hard,” she says. “Demand never decreases; neither does supply.”
Much liquor is brought in by truck, though SUVs, cars and even motorcycles are often used. The smaller vehicles are usually fitted with hidden tanks or cavities. Sixteen-wheeled trailers ferrying shipping containers are the choice for large-scale smuggling. Mainly arriving from northern states like Haryana, these behemoths often take the circuitous route into Gujarat via Maharashtra. This is to avoid the vigilance at Gujarat’s borders with Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Since there is always heavy traffic from Maharashtra to Gujarat, there’s greater likelihood of sneaking in undetected.
There’s a fair amount of brewing of country liquor and distilling of hooch too, but this is largely a small-scale business in the cities and the villages. The industrial labourer is the chief consumer of this brew in the cities; in the villages it is the farmhand. Sometimes, getting the chemistry wrong results in liquor tragedies—drinkers blinded or killed by methyl alcohol in the brew. Aware of the risks, some bootleggers take extreme care. This correspondent, during a posting in Saurashtra in the mid-1980s, was witness to such quality consciousness. A bootlegger in Vanthali, a town in Junagadh district, kept captive dogs as tasters. Each batch of moonshine from the still was released for sale only after one of the dogs had drunk a bowlful and survived for more than 24 hours.
As recently as in 2009, a liquor tragedy was witnessed in Ahmedabad. Over a hundred people died. Only a few days before that, then chief minister Narendra Modi had boasted in the state assembly that his regime had made liquor tragedies a thing of the past. Modi, as a business-friendly chief minister, had been inclined to gradually lifting prohibition in the state. But the tragedy forced him to backtrack on any steps to relax prohibition, initially by licensing more hotels to stock and sell liquor. In fact, Modi turned the clock back. He had prohibition laws amended so that peddlers of hooch could even be punished with death. But Modi did not seem to have any qualms about a minister in his cabinet marked with a series of prohibition law violations. The minister later became an MP.
But for all the easy availability of booze in the state, the average Gujarati —like all the Commissions of Enquiry set up to review the Prohibition Act—strongly favours retaining prohibition in the state. Of course, everyone—the policeman, the politician, the drinker, and even the common man—are happy with this arrangement.
By R.K. Misra in Ahmedabad