Chhapra (Bihar): Raju Sharma lay writhing on a bed at Chhapra’s Sadar Hospital Thursday. His stomach hurt and his eyes burned. And the knowledge of the reason behind his misery haunted his mind.
It was a plastic pouch of alcohol that had started it all.
“I drank alcohol on Tuesday. My friend Munna gave me a little drink when I went to the market,” said Sharma, speaking with difficulty. A carpenter in Lucknow, he was home in Bihar’s Husaipur on leave. “We didn’t know that this would happen,” he rued.
Munna also fell ill after consuming the liquor, he added.
In Bihar’s latest hooch tragedy, 28 people have died in Chhapra in Saran district since Tuesday, according to government estimates, though people on the ground fear the toll may be as high as 42.
Tuesday’s incident follows many similar incidents of people falling prey to spurious liquor in the past few years in Bihar, despite a prohibition imposed by the Nitish Kumar government in 2016. The government’s liquor ban has also raise allegations of a drain on the exchequer and increased smuggling.
“Most people have stomach complaints after drinking alcohol. Many people lost their eyesight and their bodies started trembling,” Vijay Gupta, a nurse at Sadar Hospital, told ThePrint. “There has been a lot of improvement since the treatment we did. Will keep them under strict observation now.”
He added that three people had been referred to Patna from this hospital. There are eight patients under his care, admitted with complaints of abdominal pain and blurred vision.
While Tuesday’s tragedy has reignited a political debate on the liquor ban in Bihar and its implementation, allegations have also been raised against the quality of treatment available to the victims.
“The condition of Sadar Hospital is pathetic, people have died due to the consumption of alcohol, but also due to the negligence of the hospital,” Vijay Kumar Sinha, a BJP MLA, told ThePrint.
The government has so far suspended two people, including Ritesh Mishra, a station house officer (SHO) in Mashrak, one of the worst affected villages. A special investigation team has also been formed to investigate the matter.
Meanwhile, in the bed next to Sharma, lay another of the victims, Dilip Majhi. His wife Urmila Devi, sister Reena Devi, and sister-in-law Prabhavati Devi, sat on the edge of the bed, tightly wrapped in shawls to protect themselves from the cold.
Women have been the biggest supporters of Nitish Kumar’s prohibition measure and constitute the bulk of his core vote bank.
“Everyone will die, but this liquor will not stop. We go to the Anganwadi to complain about how liquor is available freely, they tell us to manage this by ourselves. Neither the government will improve, nor the people,” 35-year-old Reena Devi, told ThePrint. She also accused the police of supporting the supply of illegal liquor.
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Nitish vs BJP
The tragedy has started a political war of words in Bihar.
On Wednesday, under attack from BJP MLAs in the Bihar legislative assembly over the hooch tragedy, Kumar responded with anger, calling them “sharabi” or drunkards.
Demanding an apology from the Bihar CM, BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi said more than 1,000 people have died and over six lakh people arrested in similar tragedies since the prohibition began.
While the BJP has publicly supported prohibition, it has criticised Kumar for poor implementation of the ban. Former Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has also condemned Kumar for using offensive language about the dead.
The Bihar CM has instructed officers that poor people impacted by the tragedy should not be arrested for consumption of liquor and announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh each to the families of the dead.
Urging people to be alert to spurious liquor, Kumar said, “If someone consumes alcohol, they will die. The example is before us”. The Bihar CM also dismissed allegations of hooch tragedies being a result of prohibition and said people were dying of toxic liquor even before the prohibition.
Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav, who has had face-offs with the chief minister over the prohibition policy when he was in the Opposition, agreed with the chief minister and hit out at the BJP for their criticism of the implementation of the prohibition law.
“BJP was a partner in power in Bihar for years, what it did for this should also be told,” Yadav said.
‘Available in polythenes’
Introduced on 5 April 2016 — less than six months after the Nitish Kumar government was re-elected for the fourth time in the state — the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, imposed a total ban on alcohol in the state.
The ban, however, seems to have had little effect on ground. ThePrint has previously reported on how the quantities of liquor bottles seized in the state were staggering — data from the state’s excise department shows that in August alone, the state impounded 3.7 lakh litres of liquor.
In addition, the liquor prohibition policy has been the subject of many controversies — chief among them is the allegation that the law has choked the state’s judicial process.
Meanwhile at the Sadar Hospital, Akhilesh Ram lies in bed watching a Hindi movie on his phone. Another victim of the liquor tragedy, he said that in his village, Mani Sirsiya, liquor is easily available in polythene bags.
The cost of one polythene is Rs 50.
“The person who used to sell alcohol in the village also died after drinking alcohol. Three people from his family died too,” said 47-year-old Ram.
According to Ram’s relatives liquor can be delivered home through just one phone call and that the administration has turned a blind eye to the problem. One among his relatives alleged that the administration was involved in this supply of illegal liquor.
Meanwhile, Manjhi’s sister-in-law, 50-year-old Prabhavati Devi rued the loss of lives in the tragedy.
“I have seen three dead bodies in front of me,” she said. “My heart constantly trembles in fear.”
Sitting next to her, Reena Devi, quoted above, added she won’t vote for anyone anymore.
“Where is the ban? Has alcohol really stopped? The men manage to get liquor illegally, and then die,” she said angrily. “The children are going hungry but the men have the money for liquor.”
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)
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