CONTAI,6 MAY: The official toll in Monday's hooch tragedy in East Midnapore rose to 21, with one more person dying at the district hospital in Tamluk on Tuesday. Unofficial reports, however, said three more persons had died in the villages.
In Kolkata, chief secretary Asok Mohan Chakrabarti said one person has been arrested in this connection, and announced the formation of a one-man committee of additional commissioner of excise, Ananda Ghosh, who will inquire into how the incident took place and pin down responsibility. He will submit his report by May 18. Chakrabarti said raids were on all along, and in the last three months, five persons were arrested in Tamluk alone. Even as excise and finance minister Asim Dasgupta had announced he would make the state free from illicit liquor, Chakrabarti said had the state reached such a stage now, such an incident would not have taken place.
Nearly 50 people are still at the Tamluk hospital. Hundreds of others have been kept under observation. Medical teams have been sent to more villages while district health officials have contacted Kolkata, seeking more facilities. "The district hospital has never faced such a situation and we don't have the kind of infrastructure required to handle it effectively. Had there been an intensive care unit at the hospital, we could have performed dialysis on the more serious patients and saved a few lives. We have taken up the matter with the state health department," said district CMOH Rabi Kinkar Naik.
With a large area under the Shahid Matangini Block being affected, Trinamool Congress has trained its guns on CPM. District magistrate Choten D Lama prepared for raids at places where illicit liquor is brewed. "We had conducted raids earlier, but could not locate many of the spots. There may have been leaks from our side," said Lama. It is evident that an organized racket under the aegis of Trinamool Candidate of Tamluk constituency Suvendu Adhikary, operates in the area with Nandakumar being the main distribution hub. The Bera family has been running the illegal liquor den on the main road at Ramtaroghat for two generations now. Many of the bottles of poisonous liquor were bought from this shop on Monday. Present owner Gopal Bera fled after the incident. Most of the hooch in the district comes from Mohammadpur, Kalyanpur, Bhabanipur, Kolsar, Rajnagar, Geonkhali and Santhalchowk in the Nandakumar, Mahishadal and Moyna police station areas.
A mixture of water, yeast, molasses and a special kind of salt is put into 20-litre earthenware jars and left to ferment inside ponds. Distillation yields six litres of hooch from each jar. Insiders revealed that a problem with the proportion of yeast or salt in the mixture can result in a tragedy like Monday's. A visit to Mohammadpur revealed that even women and children are involved in the process. Locals revealed that each distiller has to pay the local police up to Rs 15,000 per month to keep his business running.
After Monday's incident, police had paid a visit to the area. Broken jars bore evidence of this. Despite that, villagers were seen pouring the stuff into bottles. The distillation process now takes place during the night. There are around 20 such distilleries in Mohammadpur. Sources said a panchayat member is involved in the racket that has been running for over four decades. Police conduct raids from time to time, but do not meet with much success. Divers are hired by them to jump into the ponds and demolish the fermentation jars hidden inside. Sources revealed that the divers often strike a deal with the bootleggers and for Rs 50 extra, leave the jars intact.