At 6.10 am on Tuesday, Dhanpal Singh was declared dead. He was the latest victim of the hooch tragedy which has been unfolding in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand since February 7, claiming at least 108 lives so far.

Dhanpal Singh, 48, was a daily wage labourer from Shivpur village in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh.

His was the 54th body to be sent for an autopsy at the Seth Baldev Das Bajoriya District Hospital, Saharanpur, as per the hospital’s records. His relatives waited outside the emergency, pleading with the policemen who had brought the body to hand it over for cremation at the earliest. As one of them broke down, a visibly irate police officer yelled, “We have dozens of bodies to deal with. Your relative’s body too will be sent to the village once the paperwork is cleared.”

Soon, Dhanpal Singh’s relatives got into a police van, headed towards the local police station. “If not the police and the administration, who do we blame for this disaster?” asked Dhanpal Singh’s younger brother Rakesh Singh.

Rakesh Singh worked at a polymer factory until March 2017, when he lost all fingers of his left hand in an accident, leaving his brother as their family’s sole bread earner. Two of Dhanpal Singh’s five children are grown but they are unemployed.

Most of the 108 victims reportedly took ill after consuming liquor at a “terahvin”, a function to mark the 13th day of a death, at Balupur village across the boundary in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar on the evening of February 7. Those from Saharanpur also brought some back home, where it was consumed by more people.

Three days later, as the sick began dying, the police arrested a father and son, identified as Fakira and Sonu, who had allegedly bought the liquor from Uttar Pradesh and sold it at Balupur and elsewhere in Haridwar. The father and son claimed the liquor they had bought did not have its usual colour and smelt of diesel. The Uttar Pradesh police then launched statewide raids against hooch traders, filing over 270 FIRs and arresting around 200 people.

The tragedy has now snowballed into a political controversy ahead of the Lok Sabha election, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its rivals blaming each other for the deaths.

But for relatives of the dead and several residents of Saharanpur whom spoke to on Tuesday, all political parties are responsible for the “hooch problem”. Bootlegging of spurious liquor has flourished under the patronage of politicians of all hues, they alleged, as well as police and bureaucracy. For the ongoing tragedy, though, the blame lies squarely with the Adityanath government, they argued.

“He who runs the government is the one to be held accountable,” said Sudhir Kumar, a farmer from Shivpur who lost his brother Dharam Pal, 51, and nephew Sonu, 30, in the tragedy. “If it had happened under the previous government, we would have held the Samajwadi Party responsible. So, why should we not blame the BJP now? After all, everybody knows that the illegal liquor trade happens with the collision of the police who take bribes from the criminals.”

Pal and Sonu were both daily wage labourers. Sonu, deaf and mute, was his family’s only bread earner. His parents are mentally unstable and his younger brother is a drug addict, the villagers said.

Dhanpal Singh's relatives at the Seth Baldev Das Bajoriya District Hospital, Saharanpur. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

Shivpur has lost five people to the hooch tragedy. Nangal, Umahi, Kalkakali and Salempur villages, all in Saharanpur, have witnessed multiple casualties as well.

Several people from these villages who spoke with at the district hospital alleged the police have for long enabled bootleggers to move freely between Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

They claimed that different parties patronise different bootlegging gangs, which often compete over territory. As a change in government leads to the shuffling of police and civil administration officials, the areas of operation of the gangs change, they alleged. In their villages, they claimed, new bootlegging gangs have moved in after the BJP took power.

Rakesh Singh, who admitted to have been a hooch addict until his accident two years ago, nodded in agreement when the villagers spoke about suppliers changing in their areas with the change in government.

Mamta, a social worker in Saharanpur who has worked with alcohol de-addiction centres, said the “hooch problem” will end only if the police actively crack down on unscrupulous liquor traders. “I complained to the police against specific groups at least three times,” she said. “But they took no action. Interestingly, every time I lodged a complaint, some of the groups would mysteriously come to know of it. How is that possible unless they work closely with the police? I stopped complaining after I started receiving death threats on the phone last year.”

‘They had all consumed alcohol’

Illicit liquor distillers generally adulterate it with methanol, fusel alcohol, ammonium nitrate or even lead. Any of these can prove fatal depending on the quantity used and the production process.

The fatal compound responsible for the ongoing tragedy is still unknown. Kunal Jain, an emergency medical officer at the Saharanpur district hospital, said they have sent viscera samples of 11 victims to a forensic laboratory to determine the cause of their poisoning.

Two of the men who took ill after consuming spurious liquor in a hospital in Saharanpur. Photo credit: Reuters

Jain was the doctor who treated the first patient at the Saharanpur hospital. Ballu from Umahi village was brought to the emergency at around 8.20 am on February 8, Jain recalled. “And then within the next three hours, at least 10 patients had arrived,” he said. “The first patient to be declared brought dead was Deep Chand. The time was around 10.45 am. By then, we had clearly ascertained that the impact of the tragedy was large and had informed the police. All patients belonged to a certain belt in the district, all of them had consumed alcohol on the previous day and came here with the same symptoms – blurred vision, tremendous pain in the abdomen region, and constant vomiting.”

‘I’ve known about hooch trade all my life’

In December 2017, the Adityanath government promulgated an ordinance amending the Uttar Pradesh Excise Act to prescribe capital punishment for dealers whose liquor caused death. The state was following the example of Delhi and Gujarat, which both introduced the death penalty in their excise laws in 2009. While the national Capital has not witnessed a major hooch tragedy since, Gujarat suffered one that same year which claimed nearly 135 lives.

In Uttar Pradesh, though, deaths from spurious liquor continue unabated. At least eleven people died in Barabanki in January 2018, 10 in Kanpur in May, and five in Shamli in August. After the Kanpur tragedy, the police raided a warehouse owned by one Vinay Singh, who turned out to be the grandson of former minister Ram Swarup Singh Gaur of the Samajwadi Party, and recovered chemicals and a stock of liquor. Vinay Singh’s brother Neeraj, who had unsuccessfully contested the 2017 Assembly election on the Samajwadi Party’s ticket, was also arrested.

“It is not that illicit liquor makers do not have connections with local leaders of BJP, BSP and Congress,” said a country-made liquor dealer in Saharanpur who asked not to be named. “Many of them were arrested during the tenure of the previous regime. Currently, most of them are dormant for the fear of being killed in encounters.”

Several other residents of the city shared this view. “There has never been a time in my life when I have not known about hooch trade in Uttar Pradesh,” claimed Ashok Kumar, 67, who runs a shop near the Saharanpur railway station. “And so many governments have changed in that time. How can political parties even think of indulging in a blame game over such a tragedy?”

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