When Nirmal Nayak quit his job as a daily wage labourer at Halmira Tea Estate in Assam’s Golaghat district some four years ago to become an electrician, his choice of alcoholic drink also changed. He had been a regular drinker of sulai or illegal country hooch during his tea garden days. Now, he increasingly started drinking “ronga” – as cheap Indian-made foreign whisky is colloquially referred to in those parts because of its reddish colour.

But he did not share his tipple with his wife, Anita Nayak, who worked as a plucker in the same garden. Anita Nayak, like most of her co-workers, continued to drink the much cheaper sulai – a staple in Assam’s tea gardens, necessitated by their back-breaking labour, workers claim. A tumbler holding roughly 200 ml of sulai can be purchased for Rs 10. In contrast, a nip bottle of the cheapest whisky, comparable in terms of the high it gives the drinker, costs Rs 80. With a daily wage of Rs 167 – significantly lower than the state-mandated minimum daily wage of Rs 250 for unskilled labourers in Assam – the cheap whisky is a luxury few tea garden workers can afford.

On February 22, Nayak drank a nip bottle of ronga bought from a liquor shop in Golaghat town, situated barely a few kilometres away from the tea garden where he lives in a worker’s quarter allotted to his wife. “I mixed it with water and made three drinks out of it,” he recalled.

Anita Nayak, on the other hand, stuck to her daily ritual: a glass or two of sulai, procured from a seller in the tea garden itself. She died the next day in a government hospital in neighbouring Jorhat district of alcohol poisoning. She was among the 155 people – mostly poor tribal workers in tea gardens – who have died since February 21 because of spurious alcohol. The deaths took place within a 40 km radius in the districts of Golaghat and Jorhat. Many more people continue to be in a precarious condition in hospitals across Upper Assam.

Killer drink

Hooch-related deaths in Assam – and indeed Golaghat – are not new. Only last June, seven people died of alcohol poisoning in the district’s Borpothar area. Earlier in the same year, 19 people in a tea garden in the area succumbed to health complications reportedly triggered by spurious alcohol.

The police have identified a network of spirit sellers and distributors in the two districts, arresting 47 people. But the roots of the problem may lie deeper. While tea garden executives and state bureaucrats put down these frequent deaths to “lack of awareness”, interviews with garden workers, activists and officials in the area point towards a more systemic web of apathy coupled with administrative inertia and corruption.

A nurse tends to a tea plantation worker, who consumed spurious country liquor, inside a government-run hospital in Assam’s Golaghat on February 23, 2019. (Photo credit: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters).

Molasses as cattle feed?

Take, for instance, the case of molasses, a crucial ingredient in the preparation of hooch. Till as recently as this week, the trade of the substance was almost entirely unregulated. Tonnes of molasses – a byproduct of the sugar industry – would make their way into Golaghat every month, not just from the sugarcane-rich neighbouring districts of Hojai and Karbi Anglong, but from as far as Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Traders importing it claimed they sold the molasses to cattle farms, where it was used as animal feed.

Cattle farm owners, however, contested that claim. “We would never use that molasses and kill our cows,” said Parag Phukan, president of the Golaghat Cow Rearers’ Association. “Whoever is saying that they get all that molasses for consumption of cows is lying.”

Prabin Das, a local activist who is the convener of an anti-alcohol forum in the area, echoed him: “It is only and only used for making sulai. Everyone knew that, but no one ever took action against the powerful traders.”

On March 4, the state government announced a ban on the trade of molasses following outrage triggered by the deaths.

Blind spot

But prior to that, the trade of molasses seemed to occupy a bureaucratic and regulatory blind spot.

Golaghat’s excise commissioner, Santanu Hazarika, said he could not act even if he wanted to. He pointed to Assam’s Excise Act, which does not cover the trade of molasses, unlike the excise laws of many other states. In Maharashtra, for example, all businesses involving molasses require the excise department’s approval. “We can only act if we find molasses in an unauthorised distillery,” Hazarika explained. “I admit, though, that if laligur [molasses] is stopped, it [production of illicit hooch] can be stopped to a large extent.”

Assam’s excise minister, Parimal Suklabaidya, when quizzed by reporters recently, also claimed helplessness. The trade of molasses, he told journalists, was under the jurisdiction of the state’s food, civil supplies and consumer affairs department.

But officers from this department would shrug off responsibility as well, citing a 2002 order by the state government that did away with the requirement of special licenses for the trade of “gur” – which, officials, say is a generic term for jaggery as well as molasses .

The 2002 order is reflected in The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2006, wherein gur does not feature in the list of essential commodities. The Act is meant to safeguard certain essential goods from being hoarded.

“We cannot stop anyone from importing molasses,” said a senior official of the directorate of food, civil supplies and consumer affairs in Guwahati, days before Chief Minister Sarbandana called for a clamp down. “Anyone can import and stock it. There is no law that prevents them from doing so.”

Where did the buck stop then? Officials would say it was incumbent on district food safety officials to ensure that the molasses stocked in godowns in its jurisdiction conformed to standards. But there lay another catch: food safety officials are authorised to deal only with human consumables. Golaghat’s molasses traders insisted that they imported molasses only to supply to cattle farms. “The moment I enter their premises, they wave their trade licenses, which explicitly says their stock is only for the consumption of animals,” said a food inspector from the district who requested anonymity. “What can I possibly do after that? If I take a sample, they approach the court and I am at the risk of losing my job for acting beyond my mandate.”

The police could also do little. “We can only act within the purview of Section 328 of the IPC [Indian Penal Code],” said Golaghat police chief Pushpendra Singh. It deals with cases concerning deliberate poisoning.

Golaghat’s district commissioner Dhiren Hazarika admitted there was a loophole in the legal regime governing the sale and storage of molasses, prior to the latest ban. “They were getting away by saying that it was meant for cattle feed.”

Bodies of tea plantation workers who died after consuming country liquor, outside a government-run hospital in Assam’s Golaghat on February 23, 2019. (Photo credit: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters)

Methanol, the killer?

Yet, there are many who say that it may not be enough to just restrict molasses. Distillation of molasses, they say, is a long-drawn process and to cut costs, hooch sellers were increasingly resorting to just mixing water and spirit.

While the final forensic report of the seized hooch samples is not yet out, police officials say that “preliminary investigation” also pointed towards the presence of methanol in the samples. Methanol or methyl alcohol, which shares physical properties such as odour with ethyl alcohol, which is used in the manufacturing of potable alcohol, is highly toxic and has been behind several hooch tragedies. “This could mean that a foreign substance was perhaps introduced to expedite the fermentation process,” said Singh.

Singh said that molasses had always been used to prepare country hooch but it had not “caused deaths on such a mass scale earlier”. “Now things like urea, batteries are used to expedite the fermentation process,” he said.

Methanol is a highly-controlled substance, the sale of which requires extensive documentation. How did it then make its way to illicit alcohol makers? There is reluctance to take responsibility here too.

“Sale of methanol is not regulated by us,” said a spokesperson for the excise department. “It is an industrial product, the industries department issues permits for its sale.”

In any case, anti-liquor activists like Das are not convinced. “The government seems to be doing what it always does – blaming it on a foreign substance to save the lali-gur [molasses] traders,” he alleged.

Food scientists also cautioned against jumping to conclusions too soon. The presence of methanol could also point towards the distillation process going awry, said the Golaghat-based food safety officer.

Toxicology was not enough to pin down the cause of the current tragedy, he said. “This will require elaborate police work combined with scientific expertise,” he said.

Residents also say there was not just one substance that could be held responsible, whether methanol or molasses. “Yes, all sorts of foreign substances are added these days to cut down on the fermentation time,” said Lokeshawar Gogoi, a resident of Jugibari, a village in the vicinity where police suspect the killer hooch was brewed. “But it has to still feel like you are drinking sulai, so a little bit of lali-gur is indispensable.”

Gogoi’s younger brother, Biman Gogoi, died on February 23, after having consumed hooch the previous day.

A patient who drank toxic country liquor is treated at Kushal Konwar Civil Hospital in Assam’s Golaghat district on February 23, 2019. (Photo credit: Biju Boro/AFP).

Corrupt or inefficient – or both?

A resentful Lokeshawar Gogoi, broken by his 40-year-old brother’s untimely death, lashed out at the state machinery. “I am not saying that someone forced my brother to drink, but what did the excise department do about it?” he asked. “They know very well who makes sulai and who sells it but all it takes to ward them off is some cash.”

He accused the department of even turning in informers. “If you give them some information, the hooch sellers know it before anyone else and they gang up against you,” he said. “I have personally been at the receiving end.”

Excise commissioner Santanu Hazarika said the department was severely short-staffed. “We destroy a distillery, but it comes up again within days again,” he claimed. “We cannot afford to keep going back to the same place.”

Santanu Hazarika said his department was pitted against a rather well-oiled machinery driving the illicit hooch business in the area. “The fact is that the laligur [molasses] traders helped these small distilleries set up shop over and over again, because they were their main customers, not cattle farms,” he admitted. “We knew it but we couldn’t do anything about it, because it was very difficult to prove that the molasses was actually going to illegal distilleries.”

‘Awareness’, the way forward?

With hooch finally becoming difficult to get hold of in the wake of the police crackdown following the deaths, garden workers in the area are starting to show withdrawal symptoms.

The police concede that some of them, desperate for their fix, were drinking old stashed-away stocks even after deaths were reported. “I felt really helpless,” said police superintendent Singh.

Tea garden executives believe the only way forward is “awareness”. “We will organise awareness camps,” said GL Sharma, the manager of Halmira Tea Estate, the epicentre of the current tragedy, with 46 deaths. “If you are aware of your body, you will take care of your body.”

Sharma insists that higher wages – and access to better alcohol – is not a solution. “Do you want us to promote drinking?” he shot back. What about claims by workers that they drank to lull themselves to sleep after a day of unbearable toil? Exaggerated and untrue, countered Sharma. “Have you seen the conditions in slums in Delhi and Mumbai?” he asked.

Activist Das said the only way forward was total prohibition. “If you drink sulai you will die – if not immediately then at some point,” he said. “I know because my father died too. From sulai.”