Just three months after the Maharashtra government reversed a ban it had imposed on the supply and sale of toddy in Mumbai and Thane districts, an excise department probe has found that toddy depots in the districts are selling a deadly cocktail of chemical in the name of toddy. Raids carried out at five different locations this past week have revealed that a deadly cocktail of chloral hydrate and alprazolan was being served in the name of toddy.
While the adulterators were found to have mixed the chemicals to give sedative or muscle-relaxing effect to the consumers, government sources said the deadly cocktail was known to result in withdrawal symptoms among those addicted to it. In neighbouring Telangana, where a similar racket was previously unearthed, some deaths were also reported owing to the adulteration.
Questions are now being raised over the government’s move to reverse the ban, especially because it was a similar finding that had resulted in it being imposed. In October last year, startled by a survey that had found prevalence of such adulteration in one in every five toddy depots in Mumbai, the Devendra Fadnavis government had banned its supply to Mumbai and Thane.
This was done by discontinuing toddy sales in non-toddy growing areas. Excise Minister Chandrasekhar Bavankule had said at that time his government would permit toddy shops only in those talukas where toddy trees were found. Such trees are primarily found in the Sindhurdurg, Ratnagiri and Palghar districts in the Konkan belt. There are also some toddy-growing talukas in Western Maharashtra’s Sangli, Solapur, Pune and Marathwada’s Nanded. About 60 per cent of toddy shops — 1,250 in all — across Maharashtra were shut down within days after the imposition of the ban. As Mumbai and Thane have no toddy trees at all, all 250 shops in the region were closed.
On August 21 this year, the government issued fresh orders, making a special dispensation for Mumbai and Thane, reopening toddy trade in these cities.
Though toddy sales contribute to just Rs 45 crore out of the excise department’s total income of Rs 13,000 crore, sources admitted that the mounting pressure from toddy growers in nearby Palghar and Raigad districts, who wanted to tap the bigger consumer markets in Mumbai and Thane, had prompted the government’s move. A senior BJP legislator from suburban Mumbai had pushed the case for the toddy lobby aggressively, said the sources.
While the government had argued that there were safeguards it had built to check the supply of spurious liquor, the probe has only shown that lifting of the ban had bolstered the illicit trade.
Meanwhile, the investigators have so far arrested nine people in the case, including the owner of a Satara-based chemical manufacturing unit who would supply the deadly cocktail, and a Kandivali-based chemical supplier. Two more persons named as accused in the case are absconding. The investigators said more arrests could follow since they had some more leads in the case.
The investigation kicked off with a raid on a Pune factory on November 6, where a large stash of illegally stored chloral hydrate was found. Investigators were then led to the Satara-based manufacturing unit, which is owned by a qualified engineer who has now been arrested in the matter. Another 5,000 kg of the chemical was seized from the spot, along with other chemicals and machinery used for the racket. On November 9, a Kandivali-based chemical supplier was put under arrest. Besides supplying raw material, he would also help in the sale of spurious liquor.
Raids were later carried out at depots in Kandivali, Kalyan, Bhiwandi, Mira Bhayandar and Ambernath. Another 840 kg chloral hydrate was found stored in a Bhiwandi godown. While the department had earlier found a major stash of the deadly chemical during a January 2017 raid on a Nashik factory, the investigators claim to have deeper leads into the racket this time around.