Updated: November 7, 2021 7:39:08 am
Forty-year-old Anita Devi sat in her 8-foot-by-10 thatch-and-mud hut in Dakshini Telhua village of Bihar’s West Champaran district with women of the neighbourhood gathered around her. Anita’s husband Madan Ram, a daily-wager, died after consuming spurious country liquor supplied allegedly by one Ram Prakash Ram, who was himself among those killed.
Anita blamed the police for the situation that she and her children — three daughters and a son — find themselves in. If only they had checked the flourishing illegal trade in liquor in the area, her husband would be alive, she said.
Over the last three days, the death toll in the biggest hooch tragedy in Bihar since the imposition of prohibition in April 2016 has reached 30.
Sixteen deaths have been reported in West Champaran; 14 in neighbouring Gopalganj.
Residents and police in both districts in Bihar’s northwestern corner suspect a common source for the poisonous liquor, possibly supplied by traders operating along the Gandak river from Kushinagar in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. The trade in spurious liquor has increased greatly since the government of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar imposed prohibition more than five years ago, villagers said.
In Telhua panchayat, which has a population of about 20,000, 16 people have died in the tragedy. But since three of the dead were cremated without an autopsy, the West Champaran administration has put the official toll at 13.
Ten of these people died in a single ward (No. 3), which is home to about 150 households of the Scheduled Caste Ravidas community. Most of these families have built huts and small brick-and-cement dwellings on government land.
Rakesh Kumar, a daily wager in his late 20s, said: “We had alerted Nautan police several times about at least four persons in the village being engaged in selling liquor, but no action was taken. We (villagers) cannot take on liquor traders on our own… Prakash Ram, one of those who has died, had been trading in illicit liquor for the last four years.”
Gulli Ram, who lost his brother Madan Ram and cousin Dhanilal Ram (35), said: “My brothers were occasional drinkers who would sometimes consume liquor after a hard day of work. It is because of prohibition that spurious liquor is being sold. Prohibition was never imposed here… My brother Madan was to get his daughter married. Who will take care of his family of five now?”
Two others who died, Jhakkad Paswan (60) and Mukesh Paswan (28), lived only a short distance away from Madan Ram’s home.
On November 3, the night before Diwali, over two dozen people had drunk from pouches of country liquor, and had started to complain of illness the following morning.
All those who died had complained of vomiting, giddiness, stomach pain, and blurred vision. Eight others were discharged from the Sadar Hospital in Bettiah, the district headquarters of West Champaran.
Kedari Ram (80) of Telhua, who had drunk country liquor on November 1, has almost lost his vision. Lying in the general ward of the Sadar Hospital, Kedari Ram said: “I had drunk a single pouch. I never knew this would take away my vision. Yet, I am lucky to be alive.”
Police say several code words are widely used in the illegal liquor trade in the area: ‘chavanni’ for a 100-ml pouch, ‘athanni’ for a 200-ml pouch, etc.
West Champaran Superintendent of Police Upendranath Verma said: “We have suspended the Nautan police station in-charge for dereliction of duty. We have made 15 arrests so far. Raids have been conducted at 88 places to arrest other suspected liquor traders. We have seized 63 litres of liquor.”
A police officer said investigations so far indicated the liquor was sourced either from traders in the Gandak riverine areas, or from “traders from UP taking the Gandak route”.
Bhola Ram, who drank the liquor in Gopalganj but survived, said: “Local sellers buy desi pouches from the Gandak river suppliers, who operate mostly at night.”
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has ordered an investigation, and said the matter would be reviewed after Chhath, which concludes on November 11.
“The Chief Minister used to say women would benefit the most from the ban on liquor… What about the women who have lost their husbands and sons because of the failure of the ban?” Telhua villager Laxmi Kuwar said.
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