By Nilambar Rath

Family members of a victim in the recent hooch tragedy at Cuttack
Family members of a victim in the recent hooch tragedy at Cuttack
Bhubaneswar: The recent hooch tragedy in Odisha raises a few fundamental questions on functioning of the police and the excise department. Especially, finger is being raised straight on the serious failure on the part of the Government to enforce the monitoring mechanism to curb the wide spread spurious and illegal liquor trading in the State. The question is that should the highest chair in the Government, i.e. the Chief Minister Mr. Naveen Patnaik, take the responsibility for this failure?

  • Second Biggest Hooch Tragedy in the State breaks in Commissionerate Police limits
  • Govt. did not pay any heed to High Court’s direction on curbing illegal and spurious hooch trading across the State
  • Panchayat Poll Time: Hooch deaths to gain political momentum after Pipili gangrape issue!

This time the spurious liquor incidents have been reported from Bhubaneswar-Cuttack Police Commissionerate limits. Most of the cases are reported under Balianta and Cuttack Sadar police station areas. By February 8 night, the death toll had reached 30 which happens to be the second largest tragedy in the State after Cuttack hooch tragedy in 1992.

In 1992, the official death toll was announced as 134. In the said hooch tragedy, Surendra Das alias Belu was the prime accused and his connections with the power corridor was the main point of discussion at that time. This time it is not yet been clear whether the prime accused Baidhar Bhoi has any political connections. Of course, Mr. Bhoi is also no more to defend, as he also is one among the list of deceased in this tragedy. But as per media reports the locals have raised finger towards the role of the police. It is alleged that the Commssionerate Police was taking monthly quota from the prime accused. The Commissionerate police said that the tragedy struck due to a deadly mixture of the country liquor with some highly intoxicating substances and not due to spurious liquor. Whatever may be the truth, but it is a fact that the City Police has measurably failed in monitoring and curbing the trading of illegal and spurious liquor in the area and has failed to carry out its duty properly.

It is also true that the Govt. has not paid any heed to the direction and advice of Odisha High Court which has raised concern on the State wide rampant sale of illegal and spurious liquor. In September 2011, the High Court had admitted a writ petition upon the filing of a public interest litigation filed by an activist Mr. Ardhendu Narayan Behera of Bangomunda, Bolangir. The petitioner had appealed to the court to direct concerned investigating agency to look into the wide spread trading of country-made, illegal and spurious liquor in many districts which is being transported in polypacks.

The petitioner had categorically mentioned that the spurious liquor trading was State wide in nature involving major districts like Bolangir, Kalahandi, Nuapada, Baragarh, Deogarh, Sambalpur, Sonepur, Nabarangapur, Koraput, Rayagada, Ganjam, Gajapati, Dhenkanal, Anugul, Mayurbhanj and several others. In the petition is was also categorically reported that spurious liquor deaths are taking place in different districts, but the administration never pays any attention towards addressing the same. The spurious liquor traders are grossly violating all the rules and guidelines laid by the Government, especially by the Excise Department.

Upon disposing the case the Division Bench comprising of Chief Justice V. Gopalagowda and Justice B. N. Mohapatra expressed their concern on the issue. In the matter, the Court directed the Govt., especially the Secretary, Excise Department, and the Excise Commissioner, to warn the officials in the said districts to see that the circular instructions are strictly followed and appropriate criminal proceedings are initiated against the erring authorized and unauthorized sellers.

By understanding the seriousness of the issue and its large spread nature the Court had instructed the Govt. the curb the deadly-trade across the State. But it seems, the Govt., especially the Excise Department, did not pay any heed to High Court’s direction. Thus the Govt’s inaction and apathy towards public interest was exposed within 2 months of the court directions. While analyzing the cause and effects of the hooch tragedy it is also worthy to mention that it is not only the failure on the part of the Excise mechanism in the State but also a serious lapse on the part of the Commissionerate police administration. These two departments have to be taken into task and thus the public is waiting to see what action Mr. Naveen Patnaik is taking against his own officers over there.

Hooch tragedy is not new for Odisha. It has taken toll again and again and every time we have also concluded that the Govt. never learnt from their past mistakes. The major ever hooch tragedy had taken place in Cuttack city in 1992 during the Biju Patnaik Govt. Between April 7 to 12, as many as 134 deaths were reported officially. Balakrishna Behera, retired Judge High Court, was appointed as the Commission to enquire into the matter.. It was for the first time the Govt. engaged a judicial Commission to inquire into a hooch tragedy.

Let’s look back at some gray incidents which took place in the State over past two decade or more. In 1989 14 people were dead in a spurious liquor spread and the ADM was given responsibility to enquire into the matter. Later, another case was reported at Jagannathpur, in the then Balasore district where 17 people were dead. Similarly, in 1994, 4 people were reported dead at Purusottampur hooch tragedy in Ganjam district. District Judge PK. Patra Commission was engaged to enquire into the incident. In the year 1996 a hooch tragedy was reported at Charampa in Keonjhar district where 3 persons were dead. Excise Commissioner was inquiring into the case.

In 2001 there was a major hooch tragedy which took place in some parts of Puri and Khurda district involving some areas close to the Bhubaneswar city. In the said incident, more than 20 people were reported dead. District judge Mahendranath Patnaik was appointed by the Govt. to inquire into the case.

In 2001 such a tragedy was reported at Ganjam where 7 persons were dead. In the year 2003 eight persons were killed in a similar tragedy in Tangi under Khurdha district. Between March 16 to 18 in 2006, Rambha in Ganjam district has reported a spurious hooch tragedy where the toll had raised to 13. Similarly, within a month another tragedy broke in Gopalpur area under the same district where 8 persons were dead. High court retired judge Justice P. K. Patra was appointed as the commission to enquire into the matter.

It was observed that after every hooch tragedy the Govt. has simply ordered an enquiry and washed its hand with that. Unfortunately, nothing concrete has come out of the cases where administrative or departmental enquiry was initiated. What adds to uor our further worry is that though the judicial Commissions in the past have become very effective in enquiring the cases but Govt. has never paid proper attention to follow their recommendations and advice. The result is today’s fresh tragedy.

This is the time to look at the outcome of Judicial Commissions, who were appointed in such major cases in the past. Especially, the Commission’s report and recommendations on 1992 Cuttack hooch tragedy needs to be evaluated from the focus point that how much and what the Govt. has implemented to stop such unfortunate incidents on the State.

Hooch tragedies can never be taken as accidents because every time the root touches some unfair trade practices by a few persons who had some links with the local police and the political system. Now the question is that who takes the responsibility of such unfortunate and criminal incidents and whom the public should blame? The highest authorities in Police and Excise Dept. should answer this question. The Chief Minister should also face the same question.

The current hooch tragedy is going to take political momentum after effects of Pipili gang-rape case. Panchayat Poll being at the door step, now Naveen’s Govt. has to face the heat.