Monday, September 13, 2010

A heady cocktail of politics and graft

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Having lived through eight liquor disasters in 19 years, Kerala has developed the capacity to overcome the impact of such tragedies quickly and make them a part of the games that politicians play. It is, therefore, not surprising that the hooch deaths that cast a shadow over Malappuram during the Eid celebrations has become another topic to be talked out on television channels.

In terms of death toll, Malappuram ranks lower than Vypin where 78 persons died in 1982, Punalur where 34 died in 1981 and Kalluvathukkal where 33 died in 2000. But there are certain factors which set it apart from the earlier tragedies.

It shows that liquor disaster, until now a southern phenomenon, has moved northward. The killer potion was distributed not in just one place but in a few places in the Malappuram and Thrissur districts.

Liquor tragedies usually occur at festival time when the demand for intoxicants goes up. According to Excise Minister PK Gurudasan, taking into account the southern districts’ history, the authorities had taken adequate precautions there in advance of Eid and Onam.

The liquor trade is the main source of revenue of the state government and subject to strict regulations and tight control. The government cannot, therefore, escape blame for liquor tragedies.

Arrack, which is locally distilled, having been banned by the United Democratic Front government in 1995, the law permits the sale of only two types of liquor: rum, whiskey and such other items labelled as ‘Indian-made foreign liquor’ (IMFL), and toddy, a sap drawn from coconut or other palms.

The Kerala State Beverages Corporation, a public sector undertaking, has monopoly over IMFL trade. Toddy shops operate under licences issued by the Excise department. To get a licence the applicant has to show he has access to at least 50 coconut palms and the services of at least five persons who are registered members of the Toddy Workers Welfare Board.

Official data indicates that there are more than 5,900 toddy shops in the state and more than 36,000 registered workers, including more than 16,000 toddy tappers.

The government earned Rs36.50 billion by way of taxes on liquor sales last year. The Beverages Corporation, whose sales have been growing steadily, has fixed a target of Rs53 billion for this year and the government expects excise revenue of Rs40 billion.

Inevitably, media debates on the Malappuram tragedy became spats between spokesmen of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist and the Congress party. The Opposition demanded a judicial probe, and the government readily agreed.

There were judicial inquiries into almost all the liquor tragedies of the last two decades. The judges, after gathering evidence, explained how killer drinks came to be distributed and outlined measures to prevent the recurrence of such tragedies. The CPI-M and the Congress which take turns at the helm did not care to implement these measures.

Last week CPI-M state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan called for stern action against those involved in illicit liquor trade. Left Democratic Front convener Vaikom Viswan voiced suspicions about sabotage and demanded a probe into that aspect.

Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan insinuated that the liquor mafia had been trying to implicate senior police officers, who had been after it, in the custodial death of an accused in a murder case in Palakkad, which is now being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

It is easy to see that the ruling party leaders are drawing red herrings across the trail. The victims of the tragedy had bought the drink from licensed toddy shops, not bootleggers.

The state police had investigated the custodial death for months before the High Court transferred the case to the CBI. There was no suggestion of the liquor mafia’s involvement. at that time.

Like earlier instances of this kind, the Malappuram tragedy is the result of a brew of which politics and graft are the main ingredients. The state does not produce enough toddy to meet the needs of the shops it has sanctioned. The shopkeepers supplement the supplies with toddy produced artificially using industrial spirits, some of which can be lethal.

Shops in several districts, including Malappuram, show Chittur in Palakkad as the source of toddy since there are not enough palms and tappers in their areas. Official records indicate that they get 225,000 litres from there but the actual production is only 75,000 litres. The gap between demand and supply is made up at the shop end. The shopkeepers buy the silent approval of officials to this activity with regular payments.

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