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Thursday, Sep 29, 2022

Gujarat prohibition law: Many a slip between the flask and lip

Gujarat has banned liquor since 62 years, seen several relaxations, deaths, with methanol almost always the cause

AAP MPs stage a protest over Gujarat hooch tragedy near the Gandhi statue during the ongoing Monsoon Session of Parliament, in New Delhi, Wednesday (PTI)

With the death toll in the tragedy arising out of consumption of adulterated liquor in Gujarat rising to 42, with 97 under treatment, the Opposition has seized on it to put the BJP government on the mat, given that the state has had a prohibition policy since 1960, when it was carved out of Maharashtra.

In a bid to contain the fallout from the deaths – the maximum in the state since 148 died in 2009 after consuming similarly adulterated alcohol — authorities in Gujarat have been stressing that they were the result of “chemical poisoning”.

A release from the Home Department Wednesday termed the cause of death as consumption of “industry standard methanol chemical” by the victims.

Under fire from the Centre in Delhi over his government’s excise policy, Arvind Kejriwal, who was visiting Gujarat when the deaths happened, met the victims in hospital. Addressing mediapersons, he demanded compensation for the victims and said if their government was elected to power, it would strictly implement the prohibition law.

Congress-turned-BJP leader Alpesh Thakor, who visited Rojid, one of the affected villages in Botad, went so far as to ask politicians “not to distribute liquor” to win elections.

Independent MLA and Gujarat Congress working president Jignesh Mevani criticised the deaths being termed as “chemical poisoning”. “Anyone attempting to call the Laththa-kand (hooch tragedy) as chemical poisoning is insulting the families of those who died. They think the people of Gujarat are fools,” he tweeted.

The nomenclature apart, the case has been registered under the prohibition law. For the deaths, across villages in Botad, Ahmedabad and Suratnagar, 38 people have been booked and 15 arrested so far under IPC Sections 302 for murder, 328 for causing hurt by means of poison, and Gujarat Prohibition Amendment Act Section 67 (1a) for penalty for alteration or attempting to alter “denatured spirituous preparation” and 65 A for preparation of laththa (hooch).

The authorities have been careful not to mention Section 66 of the prohibition Act in the FIRs, which covers consumption of liquor, and could have led to the victims too facing charges.

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In the 62 years that it has been around, the prohibition law in Gujarat has seen several amendments. After the 2009 tragedy, the then chief minister, Narendra Modi, had amended it to introduce the death penalty in cases where casualties were caused by toxic alcohol.

The prohibition law covers the brewing of alcohol, its possession, sale and consumption. Since the 2009 amendment, the law states: “When there has been death of any person by the consumption of the said laththa (hooch)… the person who has manufactured, kept, sold or arranged to make a drink or distributed laththa, shall, on conviction, be punished with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.” Laththa is defined as meaning “spurious liquor, which contains methanol or any other poisonous substances”.

The Gujarat government’s ‘Laththa Commission of Inquiry – 2009′, had found that the victims had alcohol mixed with methanol. In 2019, a sessions court convicted four persons for the deaths, while eight more were sentenced with smaller jail terms. There was no death penalty as charges of murder couldn’t be proved.

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Liquor laws have also been relaxed in the state several times. In 2006, three years after the launch of the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, the Modi government had passed a notification, offering group liquor permits to “educational and commercial” enterprises for conducting conference and seminars in Gujarat. Another notification allowed some hotels “visitor’s permit or tourist’s permit” for guests.

Further, in 2014, when the state was preparing to host the seventh edition of the Vibrant Gujarat Summit and Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the government allowed hotel managers and authorised liquor shops to issue permits to anyone, whether “a person has checked (into a) hotel or not”. The government also facilitated the issue of online permits.

Besides, exceptions have existed in the law for foreign citizens, allowing them limited stocks of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) through a detailed application process, and those with “health certificates”.

In 2016 though, the government issued an ordinance that entailed punishment of up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a hike in fine by five times, for offences like drinking and possession of alcohol. The move followed a threat by Alpesh Thakor, who was not with the BJP at the time, to stage an indefinite fast demanding a stringent anti-liquor law in Gujarat.

Notwithstanding frequent demands from hospitality businesses and foreign investors and Opposition criticism of the government after the latest deaths, no political party in Gujarat can afford to oppose the prohibition law, which has also been linked by the government to the ‘safe state’ tag for Gujarat.

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Among the few to go some distance towards it has been former chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela who, as Gujarat president of the NCP, said in 2020 that if his government was voted to power, he would remove “the fake prohibition policy”, “so that the public can eat and drink as per their wishes under the limits of law”.

Explaining his stand, Vaghela told The Indian Express Wednesday: “Either there is a strict prohibition Act in Gujarat or there is rampant sale of alcohol in cities and villages. Both cannot coexist logically, and this is what the state government is failing to understand. With the total support of police and government, every village in Gujarat has cheap, dirty and poisonous liquor.”

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Pointing out the difficulties in implementing the Act, he said: “Gujarat is surrounded from four sides by wet states and Union territories. It creates law and order issues, health-related issues… Most importantly, people are being pushed towards drugs due to the non-availability of liquor.”

Vaghela also said that as CM, he had shifted power of enforcement of the Act to the Excise and Prohibition Department, as police were “acting as a partner of bootleggers”. Incidentally, it was in this period that Abdul Latif, Gujarat’s most notorious bootlegger and underworld figure, was killed in a police encounter.

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In 2006, the enforcement powers were again assigned to state police, on the grounds that the Excise and Prohibition Department did not have adequate force.

In 2020, the government empowered over 12,000 constable-rank police personnel as investigating officers in cases pertaining to the Gujarat Prohibition Act, where the term of punishment was five years or less. Till then, only those of the rank of head constable or above were entitled to the same.

The changes and relaxations apart, there have been several cases of alcohol poisoning deaths in Gujarat. The first documented case, in 1976, saw over 100 deaths in Ahmedabad. In 1989, around 170 people died in Vadodara, and 32 in Viramgam. In recent years, 23 people died of alcohol poisioning in Surat in 2016, followed by six people in 2017.

In all these cases, the deaths were mainly attributed to consumption of drink containing methanol. Just as now.

Bihar comparison

The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Amendment Act entails a fine of Rs 50,000 or three months’ jail for anyone found drinking or being found in a drunk state, and Rs 1 lakh fine and jail from 1-5 years for repeat offenders. The Act further includes punishment of 5-10 years, with a Rs 1 to Rs 5 lakh fine, for violence / nuisance after drinking. Dealing in spurious liquor can invite imprisonment from 10 years to life term.

The Gujarat law entails 7-10 years of jail to accused found dealing in alcohol, and death penalty if a victim has died. There is punishment of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for offences like drinking and possession of alcohol.

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For unlawful sale / possession / transport of liquor, Bihar has a provision of 5 years to life term for first offenders and 10 years to life term for repeat offenders. Gujarat has a maximum punishment up to 10 years.

First published on: 28-07-2022 at 01:13:37 pm
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