With 121 people dying after consuming spurious liquor in three districts of Punjab, the state government and the state police have started making case for the Punjab Control of Organised Crime Act (PCOCA), the proposed law that was earlier put on the backburner.
Human rights activists had expressed their reservation against PCOCA when it was discussed in 2017 and 2019. However, the state government, now has found a reason in the hooch tragedy to start a fresh debate over PCOCA. Last week, as Advocate General Atul Nanda’s suggested that PCOCA was needed to combat organised crime such as illicit liquor smuggling, several ministers concurred and Chief Minister Amarinder Singh directed a Cabinet Sub-Committee to submit a report on the same.
While the hooch tragedy has exposed a well-oiled nexus of illicit liquor mafia, experts ask if PCOCA could have actually helped the police, which, in fact, was caught unawares and reacted too late.
Information network failure
The latest spurious liquor tragedy has brought to fore at least three parallel networks were operating in the worst affected Tarn Taran district, delivering denatured spirit for making liquor. According to police investigation so far, one Partap Singh Virk from Patiala had been supplying liquor to Rachpal Singh Dhotian and Sukhwinder Singh of Toor village in the district. Another network was supplying liquor from Moga to Pandori Gola village. Further, there was a network of middlemen and smugglers on ground to make spurious liquor available to customers.
Tarn Taran is a border district where police is supposed to have a strong network of informers. Also, district is already on drug highway that starts from Afganistan. It is surprising how even village sarpanchs, panchs, nambardars, and choukidars didn’t pass on any information about this nexus, which was operating in open.
There were multiple men and women on ground who were supplying liquor to customers in Tarn Taran, Amritsar Rural and Gurdaspur villages. Surprisingly, police in all three districts failed to get any secret information about the nexus, in which players had competition with each other.
Tarn Taran police didn’t wake up from its slumber even after one Gurpal Singh was arrested in Phillaur for transporting spurious liquor on July 9. No raid was conducted on Gurpal’s brother Rachpal’s house. Later it came to fore that Rachpal had found a new supplier and transported at least four consignments in 21 days before first the hooch death was reported. Rachpal is now one of the main accused in the hooch tragedy deaths’ case.
Check posts, patrolling
Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Tarn Taran all are border districts. Gurdaspur saw a major terrorist attack at a police station in Dinanagar in 2015. The Air Force base at Pathankot was also attacked after terrorists reached there via Gurdaspur. Amritsar also saw a bomb blast at Nirankari Satsang Bhawan in Raja Sansi in 2019.
Despite there being a real threat, the police in all three districts, it seemed, didn’t keep an eye on the movement of illicit liquor via roads from one district to other. Phillaur police has now claimed that the nexus had been functional for at least one and half years. Yet, police across state failed in spotting any vehicle moving with illegal liquor before July 9, when Gurpal was spotted while entering into Jalandhar just 21 days before tragedy. Investigation revealed that Gurpal was transporting huge quantity of denatured spirit from Rajpura to Tarn Taran in a vehicle, which had no permit to run on road.
No action on complaints
As the hooch tragedy unfolded, a liquor vend owner in Tarn Taran, Sanjeev Kumar, was called to the Sadar police station. Coming out of police station, Sanjeev Kumar claimed that he had made multiple complaints against persons involved in liquor smuggling but no action was taken.
“I suffered losses in lakhs as police didn’t act on my previous complaints. I gave them names and the addresses of people who were illegally selling liquor. But nobody listened to me,” said Sanjeev Kumar.
A resident of Mehmudpura, the native village of Congress MLA from Khemkaran, Sukhpal Singh Bhullar, made repeated complaints to then SSP Dhruv Dahiya about a liquor brewing factory that had come up in there. However, no action was taken.
The same factory was busted after police and excise officials launched a crackdown in the wake of the hooch tragedy. One of the accused running this factory, Sukhwant Singh, is husband of Congress block Samiti member Rajbir Kaur.
“We had formed a committee of village youth in past to fight drug smuggling. We would often make complaints to police. But police officials would never react to such complaints,” said Jagjit Singh, a resident of village Pandori Gola from where three key accused in the hooch tragedy had been working. The Sarpanch of this Tarn Taran village is also booked for involvement in liquor smuggling.
Now, it has come to fore that police had arrested one Jaswant Singh on May 21 who was working on end pole of the nexus to supply liquor on ground. However Jaswant was not properly investigated and not asked about the supplier. Jaswant is one of the 113 people who died after consuming illicit liquor. His wife Balwinder Kaur had now been arrested. After the arrest of Balwinder Kaur, police came to know about Gobinder Singh who had been pushing liquor in Batala and Amritsar after taking supply from Harjit Singh, Shamsher Singh and Satnam Singh of Pandori Kalan. Satnam told police about two sources of supply – from Moga and Dhotian village in Tarn Taran.
What activists say
“There is no dearth of laws to check any kind of smuggling. There is no problem in law. Problem is with law imposing agencies. Police has failed in performing its job and there is also a problem with judicial system where accused get easy acquittal in such cases. Instead of improving policing and judicial system, how can making one more law by threatening human rights would work? The hooch tragedy would have happened even of PCOCA had been place. It is sheer failure of police,” said Sarabjit Singh Verka, spokesman of Punjab Human Rights Organisation.
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