Surya ast, pahad mast (When the sun sets the hills start making merry) is a common saying in Uttarakhand which points to the exceptionally high rate of liquor consumption in the state.

But there is a much darker and paradoxical side to things, recently made visible when six persons died after consuming illicit liquor in a slum in the capital city of Dehradun.

Barely seven months ago more than 40 people died in a village near Roorkee, Haridwar after consuming illicit liquor.

On both occasions the matter remained largely confined to the pages of local newspapers.

In the recent deaths in Dehradun, the prime accused happens to be a Bharatiya Janata Party functionary, Ajay Sonkar, who was eventually shown the door by the party after a public outcry that reportedly led to his arrest.

Sonkar is said to be a close confidant of BJP MLAs Ganesh Joshi and Umesh Sharma Kau.

These episodes of poor people perishing after consuming illicit liquor come in stark contrast to the general sentiment across Uttarakhand. After all, this is the state that has continued to see massive agitations against the sale of liquor by the government, and against the liquor mafia.

One is reminded of the famous ‘Nasha Nahi Rozgar Do’ (Give us employment not intoxication) movement of 1984 that echoed across the hills of Kumaon and later Garhwal. Even today there are agitations across the state every few months, led largely by women who are worst affected by this malady.

Then again, there is the paradox of a very high number of liquor vends being auctioned to women applicants. Observers point out that in some districts this figure goes up to 75% in favour of women. They also say that in many cantonment canteens, women can be seen lining up to purchase liquor.

While the previous Congress government led by Harish Rawat was in the eye of a storm for ‘imposing’ the Dennis brand of whiskey on consumers, the present BJP government is under criticism for having introduced ‘mobile liquor vans’.

‘Mobile Service - Imported Liquor Vend’

Social activist Indresh Maikhuri who is also associated with CPI(ML) says, “The government came up with this idea of mobile vans when liquor vends were pushed off the state and national highways following a 2017 Supreme Court order. These vans sell liquor in areas where people do not allow the opening of liquor vends. In several places, women still take to the streets to prevent the opening of liquor vends.”

Maikhuri further says, “The government tries to raise the bogey that liquor is a necessity, since it helps sustain the state’s revenue and economy. But this is factually incorrect. The state’s budget is somewhere around Rs 45,000 crore and the estimated revenue from liquor sales is a little above Rs 3,000 crore.

“This is nothing in comparison to the Rs 18,000 crore or more spent on the salaries, allowances and pensions of government employees.

“Basically, liquor sustains an ‘under the table’ economy. This was evident in the Dehradun episode where people did not die of liquor distilled illegally, but after consuming liquor purchased from country liquor vends, to which things had been added.”

Congress leader Suryakant Dhasmana, who is behind the exposé of the Dehradun episode, told The Citizen, “It is a very serious issue when such illicit liquor is up for sale in a slum within the periphery of the Governor’s House, the Chief Minister’s residence and the Cantonment area. Look at the audacity of the accused, they even got three of the victims cremated without getting their post mortem done. We will be demanding Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat’s resignation on this issue.”

Indeed the matter is blowing up in the face of the state government, as the complicity of CM Rawat’s partymen has been exposed. He reportedly asked the chief secretary, the state police chief and the excise commissioner to ensure that those responsible for the tragedy are brought to book. But people are taking his statements with a pinch of salt, and say that without political patronage, such activities could not continue under the government’s nose.

There is an interesting video being circulated, along with cynical comments, which purports to show CM Rawat calling for the arrest of those responsible even if they are under the earth, under water or above the skies.

Veteran political observer Jay Singh Rawat says the fault lies with the government, which has made no effort to discourage people from consuming liquor. “The revenue target from liquor sales was Rs 500 crore during the time of ND Tewari and now stands at more than 3,000 crore. Every year the rates are hiked by 20% which is now leading to a scenario where there are no legal takers for the almost 300 liquor vends.

“On the other hand, people who are addicted cannot afford expensive liquor and hence resort to consuming hooch. Instead of trying to bring down the number of consumers, governments have been keen on increasing the consumer base.”

Yusuf Tewari, a CPM activist from Almora, points out that “precious little has been done since the days of the Nasha Nahi Rozgar Do agitation to generate employment in the state. As a result, more and more people have been taking to alcohol. We also saw how detrimental the temporary phase of total prohibition in the hills was, when alcohol had started coming in the form of medicines, with its content going up to 96%. It is the absolute lack of policy intervention that is creating the problem.”

People here are pointing out how both the Roorkee and Dehradun deaths failed to hit the national headlines, and largely got buried in the local editions of newspapers. Observers say that in February, when 78 people died in Roorkee village and in adjoining Saharanpur, the event was overshadowed by the attack on CRPF personnel in Pulwama.

This time, in the case of Dehradun, the media was busy with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States and the Houston rally where he was accompanied by the American President Donald Trump.

Above all, they say, the deaths lay buried in the list of important events because the victims were poor villagers and slum dwellers.