Chandigarh: The opposition Akali Dal in Punjab Saturday claimed that the illicit liquor industry, being allegedly run with Congress patronage, is causing an annual loss of Rs 5,600 crore to the state excise department. This even as 48 more deaths due to illicit liquor consumption were reported on the day, taking the toll up to 86.
The deaths, occurring in less than a week, have seen the issue snowballing into a political controversy with the opposition targeting Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh for not cracking down on the illicit liquor trade.
So far, the deaths have occurred in three districts of the state — 12 in Amritsar rural, 11 in Batala and 63 in Tarn Taran.
Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal Saturday said CM Amarinder was heading a “murderous” government. “The CM should step down, taking moral responsibility for this gruesome carnage,” said Badal, who visited the families of the deceased and victims at the civil hospital in Tarn Taran.
“The hooch tragedy is the direct and natural consequence of the patronage given to Congress leaders, including ministers and MLAs, for freely carrying out rampant illicit liquor trade in the state. It is murder, pure and simple. All the guilty, including ministers and ruling party MLAs, (should) be arrested,” he demanded.
The former deputy CM rejected the magisterial probe ordered by Amarinder Singh and demanded an independent probe by a sitting judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Amarinder has been facing flak ever since a huge manufacturing unit for illicit liquor was discovered in his Patiala constituency in May. The opposition alleged the CM was shielding the accused after it was found that the factory was run by two close aides of senior Congress leaders. In the month before, another factory was discovered in Khanna that was allegedly being run by a Congress worker.
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CM Amarinder has ordered a magisterial probe into the tragedy, which began unfolding Wednesday night. Police have so far arrested 25 people in connection with the case.
The Amarinder Singh government Saturday ordered the suspension of seven excise and taxation officers and inspectors, along with two deputy superintendents of police (DSPs) and four station house officers (SHOs) of Punjab Police, for alleged negligence, also launching an inquiry against them. It also announced an ex gratia compensation of Rs 2 lakh each to the families of the deceased.
The Chief Minister Saturday urged Badal not to politicise the tragedy. “Such cases have happened earlier too, including under the SAD-BJP regime. Similar incidents occurred in 2012 and 2016, in Gurdaspur and Batala, respectively. Several lives were lost in these cases too,” he said in a press statement.
Opposition attack, demand for CM’s resignation
The Akali Dal has alleged that the ruling Congress’ patronage was shielding the illicit liquor industry. SAD General Secretary Dr Daljit Singh Cheema told ThePrint this was causing an annual loss of Rs 5,600 crore to the state excise department.
“The deaths are spread across three districts pointing to a large, well-oiled network of spurious liquor supply from a single source. We are pressing for an independent probe by a sitting high court judge. We reject the so-called magisterial inquiry that has been put in place only to give clean chit to influential people who might be behind the manufacture of this liquor,” Cheema said.
Apart from SAD, the Aam Aadmi Party has also demanded Amarinder’s resignation.
After the nationwide lockdown kicked in this March, bootleggers saw their business grow in the state.
In May, the Patiala Police busted an illegal liquor distillery in Ghanour. Police said more than a thousand cases of branded liquor bottles were being filled up with chemically produced liquor at the factory.
Khanpur Khurd sarpanch Amrik Singh, who is also an aide of Congress MLA Madan Lal Jalalpur, and Dipesh Kumar of Rajpura, a confident of Congress MLA Hardial Singh Kamboj, were booked in connection with the distillery. Police suspect the fresh case may be linked to the one discovered at Ghanour.
“Among those found involved in this case is one Bhinda, a resident of Rajpura who was among those accused in the Ghanour factory case too,” said a police spokesperson in a press statement issued Saturday evening.
Explaining the suspected modus operandi, the spokesperson added, “Trucks carrying spirit would be stopped at six-seven identified dhabas on the Rajpura road and the dhaba owners would buy the chemical from truck drivers. This spirit was then sold to Bhinda, who supplied it to those who produced illicit liquor out of it,” the spokesperson added.
Arrests in the case Saturday included Darshan Rani alias Faujan, the alleged kingpin who supplied liquor in Batala.
Police said they were still verifying the cause of similar deaths in the affected districts.
Hardial Singh Mann, inspector general, Ferozepur range, told The Print that while more details of the investigation would be available soon, the deaths in the three districts seem have been caused by the same batch of illicit liquor.
In April, an illegal distillery was busted in Bahomajra in Khanna from where illicit liquor bottled in high-end brands were being supplied during lockdown. Congress worker Kulwinder Singh Kala of Kaddon village in Ludhiana was arrested in connection to the case.
The Enforcement Directorate (ED), which began an investigation into a dozen FIRs on illicit liquor in June, hit a roadblock last week when officers reported that neither the Punjab Police or the state excise department were willing to share any details or documents.
“The refusal of the state to share information with the ED is proof enough that the Congress government is shielding the accused and doesn’t want the truth to come out,” Cheema said.
Operation Red Rose
In mid-May, Chief Minister Amarinder had directed police to launch a crackdown on illicit distillation of liquor. The special drive was called ‘Operation Red Rose’. The CM also ordered immediate action against deputy superintendents of police (DSPs) of sub-divisions and station house officers in whose areas such activity had been reported.
Police said they recovered over 34,000 litres of illicit liquor, registering almost 3,500 cases and arresting over 2,660 persons until mid-June. More deaths due the consumption of illicit liquor were reported Saturday, taking the toll up to 80. Police said they expect the number to rise further.
This report has been updated with additional information
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