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Malvani hooch tragedy: A year later families’ battle for survival is on

Mumbai’s worst-ever tragedy fuelled by spurious liquor claimed construction workers, sewage cleaners, sweepers, drivers, plumbers, painters, and others who do the dirty work for the city of infinite opportunities.

Written by Srinath Rao | Mumbai | Updated: June 18, 2016 1:33:32 am
Malvani hooch tragedy, mumbai liquor tragedy, mumbai, liquor tragedy, Malvani, Malvani tragedy, hooch tragedy, mumbai news The marshy lands with mangrove forests ( trangular portion in the foreground ) are the places where they used to make hooch in mhad island. Police has raided the area couple of times recovered liquor on one occassion. Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty

A year after 106 people lost their lives, police claim all the liquor addas have since shut down and not a drop of hooch can be found in Malvani now. Meanwhile, with little of the compensation money left in their bank accounts, victims’ families find it tough to make both ends meet.

No memorial, candlelight march or social media outrage marks one year of the Malvani hooch tragedy, in which 106 people lost their lives. There had been one visible reminder — a poster featuring a policewoman, a woman holding a stick, a glass and bottle filled with amber liquid and a skull and crossbones. But that too is long gone, just like the men, the money and the hooch. All that remain are wives with dreams they cannot fulfill alone, children forced to grow up too soon and the lingering stench of death in a once-thriving slum community.

Mumbai’s worst-ever tragedy fuelled by spurious liquor claimed construction workers, sewage cleaners, sweepers, drivers, plumbers, painters, and others who do the dirty work for the city of infinite opportunities. For the families left behind, the challenges now seem infinite.

One such family is of late Shashikant Kamble, in whose home at Lakshmi Nagar, the aroma of Ratnagiri haapus mangoes mingles with despair.

Laxman Dhotre one of the survivors who has partial vision Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai Laxman Dhotre one of the survivors who has partial vision Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai

Diabetic and forbidden from alcohol, 48-year-old Shashikant sneaked out for a drink with friends on June 17 last year, when his wife Shubhangi and children Aarti (18), Nikhil (17) and Nitesh (14) were at a community function. The next day, as rainwater filled the street outside his tin home, Shashikant lay on his bed and barked at autorickshaw drivers to rush his dying friends to hospital.

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“He never told me that he too had gone to drink. But the minute he said his head was paining, I took him to the hospital,” says Shubhangi, who works as a nanny in nearby Charkop. A picture of Shashikant now rests on a shelf above the bed. He had spoken of replacing the walls of his home with brick and cement, dreamt of his daughter finishing a Bachelor’s degree in education. Shubhangi, suffering from high blood pressure, does not know how the walls will be concretised.

Aarti now works at a shop to supplement her mother’s income and ensure that her two brothers, both in class 9, complete their education. The compensation provided by the government did not last long. Every year, the family would distribute their mangoes among neighbours and friends. The ritual may not repeat this time. “He never let me sell mangoes, but now I need the money,” says Shubhangi.

From the arrest of 14 people in Malvani, Delhi and Gujarat so far, the Mumbai Police claim they have pieced together how two large barrels of industrial solvent methanol were stolen, purchased for a pittance, and transported to Malvani. The methanol was diluted with water and cardamom and served to unwitting neighbours and friends on June 17, 2015.

Son of a hooch seller Raju Langda at the very residence where his father used to sell hooch. Raju Langda was a big devotee . Pictures of God and goddesses still adore the place. Currenty Raju is behind bars. Since the tragedy there economic condition has detoriated drastically. Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai Son of a hooch seller Raju Langda at the very residence where his father used to sell hooch. Raju Langda was a big devotee . Pictures of God and goddesses still adore the place. Currenty Raju is behind bars. Since the tragedy there economic condition has detoriated drastically. Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai

Methanol is indistinguishable from ethanol to the untrained eye. The effects of the consumption began to kick in the next morning, and rows upon rows of retching men made their way to public and private hospitals over the next four to five days. The state announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh to families of the deceased. A year on, only spare change remains in many of the hurriedly opened bank accounts as debt repayments, elaborate funeral expenses and children’s education ate into the sum.

With preparations to be made to observe the first death anniversary of victims, the unsaid sentiment across families is that whatever is left of the money will not last long.

In the densest part of Lakshmi Nagar, 22-year-old Pinky Kamane ranks among the few determined not to touch at least half of the government’s compensation. “I will use it to educate my son,” Pinky says. Her toddler, Om, smiles in her lap. He was two years old when his father Hari collapsed, failing to climb the steep road home. Pinky is among several young widows to have receive offers of marriage from local men. “These are men with children whose wives have left them. I’ve turned them all down. I’m not sure how another man will treat my son.”

Meena Babban Singh and her elder son Girish at their residence . They are currently meeting end means with difficulty. Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai Meena Babban Singh and her elder son Girish at their residence . They are currently meeting end means with difficulty.
Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai

A few lanes and cowsheds away, marriage had quite excited 32-year-old Vishwas Sinku. But visiting the adda on the evening of June 17 meant his planned trip to native Jharkhand to be introduced to eligible women never happened.
“He would have died at home had I not pressured him to go to the hospital,” says younger brother Vikas Sinku. Vikas and another elder brother work as plumbers.

Vishwas, who had skipped work on June 18 and sent Vikas in his place, expressed no discomfort all day. “He ate properly. But in the evening, his head began to ache,” said his mother Sukurmuti. The family had a tough time convincing the government of their claim for compensation, which was awarded only to those possessing valid photo identification and address documents.

“We had buried his bones in our village. Bade saahab from the collector’s office made us dig out his bones and only then accepted that my brother was dead,” says Vikas. “We haven’t touched the money. People in our village say we will have to organise a big function for the first death anniversary,” says a resigned Sukurmuti.

In a makeshift parking lot a few houses away lies an unused motorbike, which its owners fear they may have to sell off. In the sudden flood of money that followed the death of her husband Baban Singh (49), Meena Singh (40) bought the bike for her younger son and paid off her debt with the local grocer. “Half of the money is already gone,” she says. Placed on the floor behind her are sacks filled with bits of colourful plastic that when joined together with a steel wire make a clothes’ clip. She never worked while her husband was alive, but now, for assembling a packet of 10 clips each and filling a 10-kg sack with them, the company that markets the clips pays Meena Rs 35.

Vikas Simku and his mother Sukurmoti seats at their residence narraiting the tragedy . Vikas's elder brother died consuming the liquor. Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai Vikas Simku and his mother Sukurmoti seats at their residence narraiting the tragedy . Vikas’s elder brother died consuming the liquor.
Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai

Baban, she says, did not drink before the family moved to Malvani eight years ago, after finding rents too steep in Goregaon. “Here, he began drinking two to three times a day at the addas,” Meena says, bitterly. Yet, she admits that had it not been for Mamta Rathod, an alleged hooch supplier who is now behind the bars, her husband may have died alone and in the open. “By the afternoon of June 18, all the men who had bought alcohol at Mamta’s adda had died, so she came home and asked me where my husband was.” Meena rushed to the construction site and found Baban asleep on the ground. He was admitted to a private hospital, but did not survive.

If officials of the police and state excise departments are to be believed, the addas have since shut down and not a drop of hooch is now to be found in Malvani, although their claims extend to the whole city. Part of the Malvani police’s success in ‘ending’ the sale of illegal alcohol is thanks to wading through waist-deep muck in mangroves located a few kilometres away. Until January this year, in spite of decades-worth of intelligence, the police had never set foot inside the dense peninsular stretch of mangroves in Dharavli village that extends almost to Versova in the west.

Pinky Kamane and her son Om . She refused re-marriage due to apprehensions that her kid may be mistreated buy her husband Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai Pinky Kamane and her son Om . She refused re-marriage due to apprehensions that her kid may be mistreated buy her husband
Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai

The first raid, which saw four police teams stripped down to their vests and shorts entering the mangroves from four different directions at he crack of dawn, led to the discovery of a base half a kilometre inside the marsh, where a cavernous metal vessel and 12 plastic barrels filled with the raw material to prepare hooch were stored.

Inspector Maheshkumar Thakur, who was part of the raiding party, says that after the men were located, they denied having anything to do with the preparation of hooch. “So we looked at their hands. Their palms were colourless and most of the skin had worn off,” he says. Thakur explains that long hours of stirring the vessel with a heavy wooden staff wears out workers’ palms.

The police’s second incursion was in March, more in anticipation that illegal liquor would be sold before and during Holi than due to reliable information. “Our logic was that if there was one base inside, there had to be another close by. And we did find it,” Thakur says with some pride.

Subhangi Kamble along with her three kids Arti , Nikhil , Nitehs at their residence . Her husband died during the tragedy. Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty10-06-16,Mumbai Subhangi Kamble along with her three kids Arti , Nikhil , Nitehs at their residence . Her husband died during the tragedy.
Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty10-06-16,Mumbai

Going into the mangroves was a new challenge for the police, Thakur says. And it almost ended in a disaster. “We hadn’t calculated the tide and all of a sudden, while we were wading through waist-deep water, it came up to here,” he says, holding one hand above his head. While Thakur and his colleagues climbed up trees, constable Virendra Lokhande sank through. “It was really hot and we thought he was taking a dip. But another constable realised what was happening and pulled him out. Lokhande couldn’t swim.”

In between planning more incursions, the police keep a constant watch on Dharavali from the top of an under-construction building close by. With locations of the two discovered bases now marked on Google maps and others betraying their presence through hazes of white among the sea of green, the police keep a watch from the 20-storey tower most nights. “On some nights, there are flashes of fire visible in the mangroves, so we know that people are still active inside,” says a policeman at the Malvani police station.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, relentless campaigns and aggressive pleading by the police and women to give up alcohol had the desired effect on Lakshman Dhotre (32). After being blinded and rendered unfit to work, he was done with daaru. “I couldn’t drink after something like that,” says Lakshman.

Fifteen days in a private hospital sucked away Rs 2.5 lakh, and he did not have half that money. “We had to borrow from relatives and friends and sell our home to pay them back. Sab ko bola tumhara ek rupiya nahi mangta hai. Zinda hai toh kamake dega (I told everyone I don’t want a penny that belongs to you. If I live, I’ll earn and pay you back),” he goes on.

The marshy land through which the hoochmakers wade through waters and mud to the place where they make the liquor. It become almost difficult for the police team to negotiate the path in these areas for a raid. Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai The marshy land through which the hoochmakers wade through waters and mud to the place where they make the liquor. It become almost difficult for the police team to negotiate the path in these areas for a raid.
Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty 10-06-16,Mumbai

While his wife Gaurama worked more houses to feed their three children, Lakshman recuperated at his sister’s home in Kandivli. Vision has recently returned, but only and partially to his right eye. The whites of his eyes have lost their ghostly appearance and are returning to the pale bloodshot yellow common among men in Lakshmi Nagar.

“I can’t make out things at a distance in the day, and at night I can’t see more than 4 feet ahead of me. I can’t make out faces or read numbers on my mobile phone. But I see a little better when I do this,” he says, peering out of the corners of his functional eye.

While he has returned to work, widening a drain in Andheri East before the monsoon sets in, he cannot travel without assistance, and reduced vision is a dangerous handicap. “Main kaam andaaz se karta hoon (I work through estimation). When the contractor says there is something in my path that needs to be broken, I don’t touch it with my hands, I feel it first with my feet,” he says.

However, the giving up of ‘daaru’ did not bring Lakshman much peace. He is as good as dead in his wife’s eyes, but without the comfort of compensation, he says. He was recently told by his doctor that his vision would improve no further. “Mera dimaag khasak gaya. Tab se peene ka chaalu kiya waapis. Reh ke kya matlab? Mar gaya toh accha tha ( That messed up my brain and I began drinking again. What’s the point of living like this? I should have died),” he says.

Crackdown on Hooch

Between June 2015 and May 2016, the state excise department registered 53 cases related to the illegal sale of liquor in the suburbs of Malad, Malvani and Kandivli and arrested 53 persons. In these 11 months, a total of 495 litre of country liquor has been seized and destroyed. In January and February this year, the excise department made the bulk of the seizures — 360 litres.

Among the five vehicles seized by the department, in December last year, it also confiscated a boat that was being used to navigate inside dense mangroves, where hooch is illegally brewed.

The Excise Department and Mumbai Police claim that between September 2013 and February 2016, 10 individuals, including Agnes Gracias — an accused in the Malvani case — were externed from city limits.

Following the crackdown on hooch, sales of government-manufactured country liquor, which is the next cheapest option for Lakshmi Nagar residents, have seen a jump. In April and May this year, there was a jump of 25.5% and 28.2% respectively in sales compared to the corresponding months last year. In only three of the past 11 months was the percentage increase less than double digits. In all, wine shops in the three suburbs sold 17 lakh litre of country liquor in 2014-15 as compared to 20 lakh litre in 2015-16, registering a jump of 13% after the tragedy.

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