Illicit alcohol or hooch is big in India, with approximately 40 percent of all alcohol consumed in the country coming from illicit sources. Alleged to be running hand in glove with the local police, the vast illegal trade of cheap and dodgy locally brewed country liquor—often contaminated with methanol—has proven to be deadly. As per the National Crime Records Bureau, the country lost 1,296 lives to hooch tragedies in 2019, while scores of others have been left with serious health concerns like paralysis and permanent blindness. Data from the last 10 years suggests that illicit liquor claims at least three lives every day in the country. Makeshift shops selling such liquor illegally are spread across several cities and towns, including the capital city of New Delhi. But since liquor is cheaper in the bordering state of Haryana than in the capital, spots along the border have emerged as a haven for smuggling illicit liquor into Delhi.
VICE spoke to Ashok*, 40, who has been selling illicit liquor in the region since 2001. He is a small-scale bootlegger who sells less than 100 bottles a day, but maintains that his liquor is safe to drink and hasn’t caused any deaths so far. He lives with his family in the north eastern part of New Delhi, which is also where he conducts his trade.
Before I started selling liquor, I was a farmer living with my family in Punjab. In 2001, we came to Delhi for a trip. We were staying with a relative who was already in the business of bootlegging. He introduced me to this work. Since this trade looked much more profitable than being a farmer at the time, I decided to join him, and now this is my daily bread.
It’s not an easy job by any means. We have to remain cautious and friendly with the people living around us because the fear of someone calling the police on us is always looming over our heads. We pay 5,000 rupees (approximately $69) in hafta or monthly bribes to the cops on this beat. While that lets us go on with our job on most days, we still have to halt our operations if someone files a complaint.
I have learnt the essential skill of dealing with cops over time. I still remember my initial days in the business of selling hooch, when I had just started out on my own after working with my relatives for six years. I had to spend seven days in prison after the police caught me selling liquor publicly. I was terrified of the legal consequences, but after that first instance, I got to know that the police never take serious action in these cases. I got off after a few days with minor charges.
Now, the locals and small-time informants usually tip me off about police raids in exchange for free liquor. After accounting for this cost and the money paid to the cops, I make a profit of 30,000 to 50,000 rupees ($411 to $685) per month. A 200 ml liquor bottle costs me about $2, and in turn, I sell it for close to $3.
A carton of Santra (alcohol prepared illegally in local kilns) costs Ashok $15.
There are two types of liquor that are usually transported from Haryana to Delhi. One is approved by the government, but since the demand for it is quite low, selling it is less profitable. The other is the one I sell—alcohol prepared illegally in kilns, commonly known as “Santra (orange)". It costs me $15 per carton.
First, this alcohol is transported to the Delhi border. Then, the alcohol mafia distributes it to various spots, which are situated in dense forests. After crossing these forests, we get to some small houses, situated around an open ground. This is where we get our stock. Usually, we go there in the evening to buy stock and return at midnight.
This entire process is much more taxing than it sounds. Dealing with the erratic behaviour of the police is the real headache. We have to be aware of their checking spots, or use alternate routes to outwit them. Sometimes, they seize the whole consignment, while a good bribe is enough on other occasions.
The identity of the mafia is always kept confidential. While they’re not kinsfolk of ours, we have no danger of life from them. But sometimes they tip off the police about incoming stock. I know many people whose stock has been seized on the tip of someone from the mafia.
I’ve never thought about scaling my business up to their level though. I usually score about 12 to 15 times in a month. I bring it in and then sell it from home.
Managing the customers is a big issue for me. As I sell desi daaru (local alcohol), my customers usually include those from the labour class, ranging from rickshaw pullers to local labourers. Once they’ve had a bit to drink, these people usually cause a racket outside my house, sometimes causing people in the society to complain to the cops.
It’s a thankless job; we have no respect in the eyes of society. People don’t invite us to social gatherings to keep their distance from us because we sell illicit liquor.
Sometimes I think about quitting the business, but I am not an educated person, so getting a good, reputable job would be nearly impossible for me. I have a family of four and feeding them is my responsibility, which is why I have to do this illegal work. If I were to chance upon a decent job, I’d quit it today. Even my family didn’t really approve at the beginning, but with time, they’ve got used to it and accepted my work.
The liquor I sell might be illegal, but it’s not the hooch you hear about that costs people their lives. Killing people is not my business. I’m not sure what’s in it, but no one has ever died or been sent to hospital after drinking my liquor. All I know is that this liquor gets people drunk and that they are addicted to this stuff. On the other hand, I am not an alcoholic, and I never consume the liquor. I just sell it.
*Name changed to protect identity.
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