How Ganga kinaare wala is gravitating to spurious liquor
Kanpur: Kalu Kheda, on the eastern edge of Kanpur city, is like any of the thousand villages that dot north India. You have to cover kilometres on foot along an uneven dirt track to reach the settlement. But once you get close, you will smell the difference. The air is heavy with the reek of alcohol; the people of Kalu Kheda illegally brew hooch for a living.
Thirteen people in the twin districts of Kanpur and Kanpur Dehat lost their lives and many more their eyesight after consuming hooch a week ago. It wasn’t the first time and is unlikely to be the last either.
On one side of Kalu Kheda meanders the Ganga river and on the other side stretches the Grand Trunk Road, the legendary highway that connects India’s east to the west. Kalu Kheda now wears a deserted look as most of its inhabitants fled when police raided the village after the hooch tragedy. But the vats, urns, and drums of chemicals are silent testimony to the long tradition of distilling illegal hooch here.
The Ganga swells with the onset of the monsoon season and recedes as the clouds depart. In between, the banks become a network of ravines, dredged by streams that feed the river’s turbulent waters, rendering the area inaccessible. The ravines are too narrow to cultivate but perfect for illegal activities, brewing hooch being one of them.
TB Singh, a professor of sociology at Chatrapati Sahuji Maharaj University (earlier known as Kanpur University), has conducted research on the drinking habits of the people living in villages in and around Kanpur. “My students and I visited many villages and found that illegal brewing of liquor has become a small-scale industry there. I saw villagers distilling liquor, bottling it and dispatching the bottles in cartons without any fear of the police or excise department,” he said.
He offered many reasons why liquor is brewed in large quantities in and around Kanpur. “Kanpur stretches some 100 km along the Ganga. Across the Ganga is Unnao district and it also stretches some 100 km along the river. The riparian borders of both the districts are dotted with ravines. Accessibility is hard. But at the same time, they are close to the highways so acquiring raw material is easy. Moreover, people are ready to distill liquor illegally as they do not have work all round the year,” he said.
According to him, government initiatives to create jobs in rural areas, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, ideally should have weaned away people from hooch making. “But then you have to work hard. Making hooch gets people easy money,” said Singh.
After the recent hooch tragedy, the excise department that regulates the manufacture and sale of liquor was accused of being deliberately soft on the bootleggers. A few senior excise officials were transferred.
As a senior excise official explained, “It’s not that we are inactive against the bootleggers. We carry out raids from time to time. But our problem is how can we keep a tab on each and every village in the district! We can keep a check on licensed liquor shops. But there are hundreds of villages in Kanpur. What can we do if somebody sets up a small distillery in a village in some remote corner of Kanpur!”
The official admitted that the excise department was also facing a shortage of personnel. “Whenever we raid a village, the bootleggers use the women as their shield. By the time we tackle the women, the bootleggers escape.”
The official also said that it was tough to regulate ethyl alcohol, the basic ingredient use for making liquor. “Ethyl alcohol is also used in industries and is easily available. The bootleggers also make ethyl alcohol from rotten grains and fruits. At times, they also source ethyl alcohol from used plastic goods,” he said. “And when they are not able to get ethyl alcohol, they use methyl alcohol. And that is when tragedy strikes.”
He said Kanpur being an industrial city, alcohol in different forms is easily available. Akhilesh Kumar, Kanpur’s senior superintendent of police, said raids are being conducted to arrest all those persons who were involved in making hooch.
“We are conducting raids almost every day to arrest people who made the hooch. We have arrested some 15 people till now. We have increased our vigilance in the villages on the banks of the Ganga. Along with the excise department, we are also taking random samples from authorised liquor vends,” said Kumar.
A tough job
He said the topography of the villages along the banks of the Ganga is a major hindrance to police action. “Population is sparse. The region is not properly mapped. There have been instances when criminals who commit crimes in the cities vanish into the ravines on the river banks and the police are clueless.”
TB Singh said the menace can’t be checked so easily. “Industries in and around Kanpur are closing and hence people do not have jobs. Secondly, as industries are modernising, they do not need much manpower. Also, many people in villages do not have the skills or expertise to work in factories. They are employed in cities are labour at construction sites. Those who remain in rural areas find work making hooch.”
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