While the death of more than 100 people after consuming illicit liquor in Punjab is tragic, it was not entirely unexpected. When the World Health Organisation reported a few years ago that per capita liquor consumption in the country had more than doubled from 2.4 litres in 2005 to 5.6 litres in 2016, not far below the global per capita consumption of 6.4 litres, it ought to have alerted policy-makers.
After Vietnam, India had recorded the highest increase in liquor consumption. As social habits underwent a major transformation, official data showed that Punjab had the second highest number of deaths from consumption of spurious and poisonous liquor in the country, marginally behind Tamil Nadu, which has more than twice as many people. It was against this backdrop that a lockdown was announced in March, and liquor shops were locked up as sale of alcohol was considered unessential.
Only one state to our knowledge was pragmatic enough to realise that not feeding a habit, even a pernicious one, could have disastrous consequences and allowed shops to open for a few days amid the lockdown. Punjab kept its liquor shops shut for more than 40 days and even when it announced they would be allowed to open in the first week of May, not many did because they were demanding a relaxation in the excise rules with respect to licence fees.
This was a long enough period for illicit distilleries to streamline operations and establish an extensive delivery network. Additionally, like many states, Punjab too levied a Covid cess on alcohol, making illicit liquor seem a more attractive option. For a state that has over the years mastered the art of clandestinely selling intoxicants, transporting and distributing illicit liquor would have proved relatively easy, especially in the absence of competition.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the deaths last week were not localised ~ as is often the case with such tragedies ~ but covered three districts, Batala, Amritsar and Tarn Taran. It is not as if the state’s Chief Minister was unaware that his fellow Punjabis favoured a tipple. Perhaps realising this, Punjab in fact was one of the first states to allow home delivery of liquor after the first easing of lockdown restrictions.
Where Captain Amarinder Singh and his government erred were in miscalculating the scale of the enterprise that had come up during the first lockdown, and in not anticipating that corrupt excise officials and policemen would by then have joined hands to fine-tune distribution chains for the illicit brew. Thus, the fuse lit in March caused the explosion in July.
It is all very well for the state government to announce ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh to families of those who died; this is a small price to pay for criminal lapses. But the alacrity with which the authorities claim to have made arrests, and uncovered the trail of production and distribution, tells us how little there was to investigate; seemingly, the trade was an open secret.