These days, the television at Durjoy Nayak’s home — a thatched mud hut located in one of the ‘lines’ or workers’ quarters of Halmira Tea Estate in Golaghat — runs around the clock. The 70-year-old isn’t quite sure what he’s watching, but light from the beat-up box set flickers into the wee hours of the morning, whilst the rest of the estate is sound asleep. Ever since the authorities cracked down on the consumption of ‘sulai’ or the local molasses-based alcoholic brew at the tea estate, the worst-hit area of the hooch tragedy that claimed more than 150 lives in Upper Assam last month, sleep has evaded Nayak.
“Khau khau lagi thaake (I feel the urge every day),” says the retired tea garden labourer. Till the incident, Nayak says, he does not remember a single evening when he and his wife did not drink, a habit they inculcated to drive away “tiredness” when they were working in the gardens, plucking leaves for close to eight hours a day.
Nayak drank even on the day the tragedy stuck. “Perhaps I drank from another batch of sulai, and was saved,” he says.
Around him, 57 people — 29 of them women — died from consuming suspected spurious liquor, starting February 21. The poisoning spread up to 40 km away in the neighbouring district of Jorhat, killing around 99 people in Borholla and Titabor. Police have arrested 47 people, a network of distributors and suppliers.
A mass cremation was held in a football field right outside the tea estate. Among those watching was 22-year-old Mukesh Orang, brother of sulai-seller and suspect Sanju Orang. Sanju had died the night before.
A week after the deaths, Mukesh sits with friends and neighbours Debaru Bhumis (35), Debeshwar Orang (24) and Anil Goala (30), outside the Halmira Tea Estate Hospital. All four have lost their mothers to the tragedy. “They would drink together after work,” says Debaru.
The mass burning was like “watching a film unfold”, Debeshwar says, adding that he still can’t wrap his head around the tragedy. “Everyone drinks in the baagan (garden). Not just our mothers.”
It’s a sentiment echoed through the eight lines of the tea garden — ‘line’ being a reference to lanes with tin-roof kachcha huts where tea garden workers live next to gardens. Drinking is an activity generation of workers have indulged in, since the mid-1800s when the British first started recruiting them from Central and Eastern India for Assam’s tea plantations.
Assam has 803 registered tea gardens employing over 20 lakh workers, both temporary and permanent. While permanent ones have work through the year and access to benefits, a casual worker, known as “faltu” or “jobless” in colloquial terms, is hired only when the workload increases as per season, and is not eligible for most benefits.
Halmira Tea Estate had 712 permanent and 850 temporary workers on its rolls. Fifty-seven died in the hooch tragedy.
“It is us faltus who like drinking. What else can we do? We don’t have money or work,” says Raimoni Kundho, 50, who drinks every day. She says sulai is cheaper than “ronga” — IMFL or Indian Made Foreign Liquor, called so because of its colour (red), which the marginally better-off like to drink. It is also cheaper than Rhino, a branded country liquor made by a Jorhat-based brand. While one can buy a 750-ml bottle of sulai for Rs 40, a ‘quarter’ of Rhino (180 ml) costs this much. Survivors of the tragedy say sulai worth Rs 10 “gets one high”, while for Rs 20, you are “set for the night”.
The Halmira Tea Estate, owned by the Kolkata-based Newar Group, now has flyers urging people to give up alcohol. Some go about business as usual, maintaining that they always knew “sharaab” was bad. Others move around in groups, from the hospital to Golaghat town, trying to get their documents in order, to open bank accounts to receive the compensation of Rs 2 lakh for each life lost, and Rs 50,000 for those who fell ill.
Yet, among them all, there’s a consensus that those who drink, drank not just because they wanted to, but because they were driven to it, to escape “bhagor (exhaustion)”. Amrita Orang, 22, whose parents died when she was a child, says she has been working in the gardens for as long as she can remember. “We either pick leaves or prune bushes. The work is back-breaking,” she says, adding that while she never drank, she could understand why people did. Debaru Mahalo, 45, from the ‘Notun line’, who lost his mother to the tragedy, says that before he got married, he would drink even in the morning. “Back then my mother would tell me to stop, then she got addicted herself,” he says. Dipali Patnayak, 30, whose husband died in her arms, never touches sulai herself, but says she is addicted to betel-nut or taamul. “I cannot function without it.”
Gangamoni Ghatowar (54), who survived after spending four days at Jorhat Medical College and Hospital, says, she drinks for “aaram (comfort)”. “On February 21 night, I had bought sulai for Rs 20. After drinking it, I fell sick… My sister Dashmi was in hospital for six days.”
A mother to five children, four of whom are married, Ghatowar adds, “Many women get their first taste of alcohol when they are given it to comfort them after their first delivery.”
Gonsu Gosain, the labour union president of the Halmira Tea Estate, says, “Workers drink to ease exhaustion. But then there is poverty, your choices are limited.”
Both Jorhat and Golaghat, where the deaths happened, are dotted with picturesque tea gardens, with workers mostly Adivasis from the Chota Nagpur plateau region. Politically referred to as ‘Tea Tribes’, they have for generations lived in what activists describe as “slave-like” situations. “Their wages are very low, they don’t own anything, and they almost have no links with the greater Assamese society,” says Stephen Ekka, the director of PAJHRA, an NGO that works with the community. “No hopes, no dreams and no desire to do anything different. So they drink,” he says.
Labourers like Amrita get about Rs 1,500 every 12 days. “Even that depends on how many kilos of leaves we pick, or how many hours we put in,” she says. Says Ekka, “If they deliver 24 kg, they are entitled to a full day’s wage. Otherwise, there is deduction.”
Assam mandates a minimum wage for unskilled labour of Rs 250 per day, but in the tea gardens, the amount is decided by the owner and a labour union. At Halmira, the daily wage is about Rs 167 per day.
“But if you count provident fund and gratuity, it is about Rs 260 actually,” argues G L Sharma, the Manager of the estate. “How can you say they live in hard conditions? We also provide them electricity, hospital access and rations. Just compare this to a slum in Delhi or Mumbai.”
His words hardly resonate with the likes of Bina Karmakar, who lost her husband on February 23. Karmakar, who guesses she is about 60, says that her vision is “cloudy”. Yet, every morning, she goes to the garden at 8 am sharp to start plucking leaves.
“This tragedy is nothing but the result of exploitation. Our forefathers came as labourers around 200 years ago, were confined to the gardens and moulded to believe we were a separate, much-inferior class,” says
G S Barhoi, the Golaghat-based secretary of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha, the largest trade union organisation in the tea gardens.
On March 8, Assam DGP Kuladhar Saikia tweeted, “While meeting the victims of recent hooch tragedy of Golaghat/Jorhat a feeling of remorse came to my mind. Perhaps, the time is now upon us, to create a social inclusion process for our tea tribes brethren.”
Kundho says sharaab helps some of her other troubles go away too, like high blood pressure. It’s a disease that ails nearly 60 per cent of the tea garden workers in Assam, as per a study published in The National Medical Journal of India. This is rooted in another colonial-era practice, where labourers were asked to mix salt with tea to combat dehydration. Out of habit, many labourers continue to drink salt-tea or nimok–saah.
On the day the tragedy struck, Kundho happened to drink from an old stash. Her eyes tinged yellow, hands shaky, she chuckles, “Nothing happened to me, thank god. If I had died, people would have remembered me as a drunkard… How embarrassing.”
For 65-year-old Binita Pujor too, alcoholism used to be a “way of life”. Till a year ago, her sons and she would sit around after dinner and share the “maal” — a bottle of sulai her eldest would buy for about Rs 40. “When I drank I did not worry about the pain in my calves, about how my family would live, or if we would live at all,” says Pujor. The grandmother of six gave up drinking when her eldest son drank himself to death. But among the mass deaths last month were her middle son Debaru and daughter-in-law Sunita. Her other daughter-in-law, Bharti, managed to survive.
Debaru and Sunita left behind four children — three boys (Chandan, 3, Kundan, 7 and Badal, 9) and one girl (Dipali, 11). The children are now with their uncle Bispotiya. When The Sunday Express visits, a week after they lost their parents, the boys run around, poking each other, giggling. Dipali looks around awkwardly when addressed, then walks away with Chandan on her hips.
“They do not understand what has happened, they barely even talk. They never went to school either. I used to tell their parents you are permanent workers, you are lucky. But my brother and sister-in-law were full-time alcoholics,” says Bispotiya.
Sunita’s brother Krishna, who stayed with them, worries what will happen to the children. “I have an eight-month-old child myself and I am a temporary worker. How will I take care of them?”
According to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Golaghat district, the tragedy has thrown up 30 orphans in Halmira alone. Officials put the total number of such children at 41 — including seven in Jorhat. This includes children who lost both their parents as well as those who had lost one parent earlier but lost the surviving one to hooch.
In the house next to the Pujors lived Ajay Pujhar, 35. Neighbours say his wife Rupali had left him two years ago. Ajay’s death has left his four sons — Mongol (3), Mahesh (5), Avinash (7) and Vikram (11) — without anyone to look after them. The eldest, Vikram, says they never went to school. “We just pass time. I will probably become a tea garden worker when I grow up a bit.”
Sandhya Urang (35), a permanent worker, also left behind four children — sons Manoj (15) and Bitul (13), and daughters Usha (8) and Uma (11). Her husband Suren had died five years ago.
“Maa complained of severe headache. It was February 23, two days after the first deaths, and we got scared. We took her to the tea garden hospital. She was referred to Civil Hospital in Golaghat and then Jorhat Medical College and Hospital, where she died,” Manoj says, adding that Sandhya drank regularly and also sold liquor.
Relatives say Manoj dropped out of school after his father’s death, while the other three children still attend classes. “Once he is 18, Manoj can start off as a temporary labourer,” says uncle Bandhan Urang.
Dipa (13) and brother Sachin (11), who are in Class 6 and 5 at a government school, lost parents Anupa Telenga (36) and Monju (32). Also among the dead were their uncle Mahendra Telenga and grandmother Ema. The family, whose members reside across three adjacent households, estimates the ages of the latter at “around 40 and 60”.
Theirs remains one of the most tragic cases. Ema, Anupa and Monju all drank on February 21 night, despite the news of deaths around them. The next day, the three were rushed to the hospital in Jorhat. While Ema died there, Anupa and Monju left without telling anyone. “On the way back, they did not have money for fare and were asked to get off a bus,” says Anupa’s brother Sanu. A few hours later, both were found dead by the roadside between Jorhat and Golaghat.
The next day, right after the Telenga family had lit the pyre for the deceased, Mahendra, Ema’s eldest son, died as well.
“I do not know what happened, who he drank with, why he drank,” says wife Mamomi. “Maybe he did not know how else to express his grief.”
“The family now has to decide about Dipa and Sachin. They have a life ahead of them,” another of Anupa’s brothers, Sitom, says, hoping for government help.
Lukumoni Goswami, Chairperson, CWC, Golaghat, says it’s the relatives who are coming in the way. “We took two children under our care. We are keen to shift the rest to our homes too… (But) the relatives are eyeing the compensation money. We have tried to explain to them that the children’s futures will be secured with us, but every day a new relative appears claiming the child.”
Dr Alok Rajkhowa, the District Child Protection Officer of Jorhat, says, “Close relatives are important for a child. So, if it can be established that a relative does not want a child purely for the money, then nothing like it. We are holding meetings to establish which relatives can take care of a child.”
On March 4, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said the government would help look after all such children under the Juvenile Justice Act.
“I used to tell papa not to drink,” says Mahendra’s 15-year-old daughter Sapna, saying she misses him a lot and recalling how he would give her Rs 10 every day to buy chocolates. In Class 9, she does not want to work in the tea garden, like her parents or her grandparents did. “I want to be in the Army, that is why I run races at school.”
Recalling how the deaths began, Dr Pranjal Sharma of the Halmira Tea Estate Hospital says, “The first patient came to us at 4.10 pm. By 4.30 pm, we had five — all with similar symptoms. Immediately after, I went to the two homes whose residents were known to sell sulai.”
In one of them lived Sanju Orang, 28, who had been selling sulai for three years. His mother Draupadi, who also sold the brew, was among the first five to be admitted to the hospital. She died later that night.
“I collected samples from Sanju and sent them for testing,” says Dr Sharma. But it was too late. By next morning, there were nearly a hundred cases from Halmira alone.
“The first few days, we had hundreds of people. Not just the victims but their families too,” says Dinesh Telenga, Health Assistant at Halmira Tea Estate Hospital. The families moved around dazed, as many lost several members. Among the dead were at least two mothers and sons, three people related by marriage, and one new father. Binon Pujhor’s friend Bunu Nayak says Binon had thrown a small party to celebrate the birth of his daughter. While he died, Bunu survived. “Binon was very happy. He had served jhaalmuri and maal,” he recalls.
Telenga and a 15-member team worked round the clock. “While we did provide initial first aid before referring the patients to bigger hospitals, we were also busy doing checks in the lines to see who was drinking, what was the source,” he says.
A fortnight later, the staff is still arranging ambulances to pick up patients, as well as doing routine checks at houses. Calling the past two weeks their busiest, Dr Sharma says, “In February 2018, there were 19 deaths at the Doyang tea estate linked to spurious alcohol. But never such mass deaths.”
Sharma, the estate Manager, says he has conducted several awareness programmes on alcohol prevention, but to no effect. “We can monitor the labourers during working hours, but beyond that we cannot,” he says.
In the neighbouring village of Jugibaari Selengi, where most of the sulai was prepared, there has been a crackdown on the bhaatis (distilleries). CM Sonowal has ordered a ban on molasses and deputy commissioners have been told to create awareness about the evils of sulai. As of now, at least seven people in Jugibaari Selengi have died in the tragedy and at least five arrested.
But villagers here maintain that the killer hooch could not have been sulai. A resident, who did not want to be named, says, “We have been making sulai for ages. No one has died. Months before this tragedy we knew that some people were mixing spirit with water and selling it. That drink gets you high but is bad for health.”
Durno Kanta Gogoi, who works with the Assam Police, believes his younger brother Biman died due to this spirit mixture.
Back at Halmira, Dr Sharma says, “I don’t think anyone in the lines is drinking now, but just yesterday, Budhwa Orang, a driver, passed out… Withdrawal symptoms.”
When The Sunday Express visits Budhwa, he does not open the door for long. When he finally does, he barely speaks before heading back in. “We never realise if he’s home or not,” says a neighbour.
The next day, The Sunday Express visits Budhwa again. This time he does not open the door at all.