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The Unholy Spirits
Last fortnight's illicit liquor tragedy in Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts brought into focus the nexus between politicians, the police and the powerful cartel that operates the illegal trade in Kerala. As many as 35 people were killed after consuming spurious liquor laced with lethal methyl alcohol. The killer brew was traced to supply centres run by an influential cartel of liquor barons operating from Attingal near Thiruvananthapuram on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. And although the kingpins responsible for supplying the toxic arrack went underground, the police did manage to zero in on Hairunnisa, owner of the retail outlet where the poisonous brew was served.
Hairunnisa sparked a spiralling political controversy when she divulged details of cash contributions made to political parties and politicians on either side of the coalition divide. The focus then shifted from retailer to supplier when she claimed the liquor came from stocks stored in the godowns of bigtime abkari (liquor contractor) S. Chandran, popularly known as Manichan, said to be close to political heavyweights in the state. Then, much to the consternation of the police, Manichan, who was officially declared absconding, showed up on TV to declare his innocence.
But the politician-police-excise nexus in the illicit liquor trade was exposed when documents seized in income tax raids on Manichan's premises showed payoffs against prominent politicians and senior officials. The political establishment then went into panic mode. Public denials ensued. The cpm-led Left Democratic Front (ldf) found itself in the dock for extending its patronage to the liquor trade. Excise Minister Sivadasa Menon was besieged by calls from opposition parties asking for his resignation over the liquor deaths. Menon did not oblige. "I did my best as the excise minister to curb the illicit liquor trade. When I ask my officials to conduct raids on hooch dens, they come back saying they found nothing. Can I conduct the raids myself?" the minister asked, pleading helplessness.
But obviously, curbing the illicit liquor trade isn't one of the government's accomplishments. The opposite could well be the case, if excise revenues are any indication. Excise earnings rose from Rs 524.72 crore in '98-99 to Rs 587.20 crore in '99-2000. More than half of this revenue accrues from rentals from toddy outlets. While it's common knowledge that the toddy industry is in the doldrums, the revenue from toddy is on the rise. The reason: the toddy outlets also serve as outlets for arrack—a banned commodity.
Ever since the arrack ban clamped by the previous Congress government under A.K. Antony, arrack contractors have been bidding for toddy shops in the annual auctions and lacing toddy with arrack to circumvent the prohibition. The ldf government has been accused of looking the other way and thus promoting the interests of the arrack lobby. But the source of the spirit, the vital ingredient in the manufacture of arrack, lies across the state's borders. Truckloads of camouflaged contraband spirit routinely enter the state. "The methods of smuggling are ingenious," admits a senior excise official, "for every 20 vehicles that pass through the checkposts, only one gets caught." But the widespread impression is that this is the ratio decided by mutual agreement between checkpost officials and the smugglers. There are also many other byroutes by which contraband spirit easily enters the state undetected.
A more potentially lethal method to get past the checkpost is to "mask" the spirit with methyl alcohol so that it can pass for industrial spirit—this is later diluted so that the proportion of its toxic content falls below the level that can kill consumers.The Special Investigation Team (sit) set up to probe the racket suspects that the Kollam deaths occurred when the dilution process went wrong, which made the brew that was supplied to retailers like Hairunnisa unfit for consumption.
Methyl alcohol in small doses is often added to increase the potency of arrack. Since methyl alcohol comes cheap, the trick employed is to first add water to potable spirit to increase the volume and then add the methyl to ensure the diluted drink gives a suitable high. When the percentage of methyl increases, it's lethal. The Vypeen liquor tragedy in '82 when 78 people died was caused by high methyl content in the arrack being sold through registered government outlets. And now, Kollam will figure as just another episode in the state's chronology of liquor tragedies. n
Venu Menon in Thiruvananthapuram