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42 deaths, 15 arrests, 6 suspensions: How ‘liquor crackdown led to’ hooch tragedy in dry Gujarat

42 people have died in Gujarat over the past few days in worst case of mass-poisoning by spurious alcohol in Gujarat since 2009, when a similar incident reportedly claimed over 125 lives. 

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Botad/Dhandhuka: It was a daily ritual for Deepak Vaghela, a 28-year-old farm labourer in Gujarat, a dry state — ending his gruelling work day with two ‘potlis (pouches)’ of country liquor, purchased at approximately Rs 20 apiece.

That’s exactly what he did on 23 July. Something, however, was different that evening.

Within hours, Vaghela, a resident of Rojid village, started vomiting. He complained of severe chest pain and blindness, and, by 10.30 pm the following day, had passed away. 

He was the sole breadwinner for his family of five — two daughters, his 24-year-old wife, and parents.

Vaghela is one of 42 people who have died in villages around Ahmedabad and Bhavnagar over the past few days in the worst case of mass-poisoning by spurious alcohol in the state since 2009, when a similar incident reportedly claimed over 125 lives. 

Within Rojid, the toll is 11, with 30 other men hospitalised for suspected alcohol poisoning.

The tragedy, according to police sources and the accounts of local residents, was brought about by an effort to stamp out illegal brewing.

Much of the brewing is believed to have been concentrated in Chokdi, Barwala district. Police sources said the spurious alcohol made here was being sold at Rs 20/pouch in the villages of Rojid, Polarpur, Bhimnath, Nabhoi, Chandarva and Devgana.

Jattubhai Dodiya, a 52-year-old resident of Chokdi, told ThePrint that, over the preceding 15 days, newly-appointed Barwala Police Sub Inspector (PSI) B.G. Vala had shut down the production of hooch in the village.

With the liquor operations shut, the 20-30 families in Chokdi that rely on the alcohol trade for survival turned to new — more dangerous — means, it is learnt.

Instead of fermenting jaggery, water and yeast for days, and brewing the liquor in barrels near the Narmada Canal, which runs behind the village, these men used a quick fix — mixing methyl alcohol or methanol with water.

Liquor is known to have ethanol, a close cousin of methanol, but the latter is said to pose an “outsized danger” to humans. Consumption of as little as 10 ml of pure methanol may result in permanent loss of vision, and as little as 30 mL may be lethal, depending on its concentration. 

Even so, it is reportedly a key ingredient for bootleggers looking to prepare alcohol in a rush.  

Vajesang Barad, another Chokdi resident, said the men making liquor were inexperienced in handling the chemical. “This was the first time that they tried to simply mix a chemical in water and sell it. They got the proportion all wrong which led to the death of so many people,” he added.

In a press release issued by the Gujarat government, the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) Gandhinagar found the presence of 98.71-98.99 per cent methanol in the liquor that the victims consumed.

For comparison, for a person weighing 100kg, just 30 ml of a 50 per cent methanol solution would be toxic.  

A source in Gujarat Police said “15 people have been arrested in the case so far”, including prime suspect Jayesh Kavadia.

“According to our investigation, an accused working at a chemical packaging company [Kavadia], had allegedly stolen 600 litres of methanol chemical and sold it off as country liquor,” the source, stationed at Barwala, 130 km away from Ahmedabad, said.

The FIRs filed in the Barwala and Ranpur areas of Botad district Monday invoke sections 302 (punishment for murder), 328 (causing hurt by poison) and 120 B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC, as well as the Gujarat prohibition law.

In light of the case, the Gujarat Home Department Thursday transferred the superintendents of police (SPs) of Botad and Ahmedabad districts and suspended six policemen, including two of the rank of deputy superintendents, for alleged dereliction of duty. Vala is among the six policemen.

The case has been handed over to Ahmedabad Crime Branch and Gujarat Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS).

Earlier this week, Gujarat Minister of State for Home, Harsh Sanghavi, also announced a three-member committee headed by Inspector General of Police Subhash Trivedi to probe the incident and submit a report in three days.

ThePrint reached Trivedi by call, but he said the investigation was ongoing and refused to comment. 

Calls were also made to B.S. Vala but his phone remained unanswered/switched off throughout the day Thursday and Friday. Officers at the Barwala Police Station refused to speak on the issue when ThePrint visited. 


Also read: Schools shut for Covid, Bihar teens find new way to pass time & earn — deliver illegal booze


An open secret?

Vashrambhai Parmar, 33, a safai karamchari (cleaner) with the district administration, used to consume these liquor potlis daily. He, too, died Sunday from alcohol poisoning. Speaking to ThePrint, his sister blamed the nature of his work.

“He used to clean gutters and sewers, who will be able to work without alcohol in such filth?” she said.

As for Vaghela, his wife Manisha said, “Our men toil hard in the farms all day. Sometimes they would drink to relax. If alcohol is available so freely, who will stop them from drinking?”

Deepak Vaghela's widow Manisha | Soniya Agrawal | ThePrint
Deepak Vaghela’s widow Manisha | Soniya Agrawal | ThePrint

The task of making and selling alcohol, villagers claim, has been going on for the past 30 years in Chokdi. 

An alleged nexus between bootleggers and the police is believed to have allowed the trade to flourish over the years. However, with the appointment of Vala, this operation had been brought to a halt.

That’s why some residents of Chokdi are upset with the news of Vala being suspended since he was actively taking steps to wipe out the liquor trade.

Said Dodiya, “For the first time in my life, I saw the liquor barrels being destroyed and operations being shut down by the police.

“Guards were sent to patrol twice a day to check the spots where this alcohol was brewed. Usually, the local police demand a hafta (regular bribe) from these men and let the production continue.”

Dodiya said he wanted Vala back at work. “We want to know the procedure to bring back the police officer. If he is taken to court for a trial, we will go out in support for him. He was doing something that no other police officer has done for us.”

Another 50-year-old villager, who did not wish to be named, said, “Everyone thinks we are afraid of the bootleggers but we are not. Vala sahib‘s actions have given us the courage to speak up for ourselves.”

The consequences

Over 150 patients have been sent to hospitals so far for alcohol poisoning. Over 40 are currently being treated in Ahmedabad’s Civil Hospital.

Another 105 were admitted to Bhavnagar’s Sir Takhtasinhji Hospital within a span of two days. The hospital has so far had 20 deaths and about 45 people have taken voluntary discharge. The hospital has a ward dedicated to such patients.

With the toll reaching 42 Thursday, doctors at both the hospitals say that there is a possibility that there are more patients who may have gone to private hospitals for treatment.

A resident doctor at Sir Takhtasinhji Hospital, speaking to ThePrint on condition of anonymity, said, “On Sunday we received about 10-15 people, but by Monday the number of patients coming in increased. Over 50 people came in complaining of chest pain and vomiting. We even sent a team of our doctors to treat patients at the district hospital. But due to lack of equipment, these men then had to be brought to Bhavnagar.”

With police personnel on guard outside the building, only relatives of patients are allowed inside.

A senior doctor from Ahmedabad’s Civil Hospital told ThePrint that, of the 40 people admitted there, all were in stable condition. “Most of these patients were given the generic treatment given to patients for chemical poisoning,” he said.

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)


Also read: ‘1 by 1 we started falling ill’ — Aligarh hooch victims recall trauma, say want jobs, not cash


 

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