“I lost my sight but gained my vision,” Ravinder Singh, 51, a sobriety campaigner in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab told a group of farmers in his village, Rataul. Ravinder could not live without his dose of hooch until July this year when he lost his eyesight after consuming the drink. “Look at me. Toxic liquor will make your life a living hell,” Ravinder addressed the men, many of whom are addicted to illicit liquor.
Ravinder and his younger brother, Harpal Singh, 46, a driver in Punjab’s Amritsar city, conduct meetings in neighbouring villages and cities urging people to get sober. “Some of them listen to us, others don’t,” Harpal told VICE World News. “But I do not stop telling them that illicit liquor has left my brother visually disabled for life. I tell them stories of those families who lost their sole breadwinners to hooch.”
Also known as non-commercial alcohol, hooch is colloquially known as moonshine, local, desi, or tharra. It is not taxed. There is no official data, but research suggests that India consumes more hooch than distilled liquor.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, consumption of illicit liquor caused 1,296 deaths in 2019. Data from the last 10 years suggests that illicit liquor claims at least three lives every day in the country.
That July evening was unusually hot in Rataul village. Ravinder bought a bottle of hooch for INR 150 ($2). Two days later, he was battling for his life. The toxic alcohol, which was just diluted methanol, had poisoned him.
On the night of July 18, Doctors told Ravinder that he might not survive. He opened his eyes the next morning. He saw a blurry ceiling, then a black ceiling, and eventually it all became blank. Ravinder had lost his eyes to methanol poisoning which is particularly toxic to the optic nerve and can lead to acute blindness.
“My father did not tell us that he could not see properly,” said Ravinder's daughter, Palakdeep Kaur. “I noticed that he could not figure out where his medicines were kept. Next day, he could not see me standing in front of him.”
Harpal approached the local state police to file a first information report (FIR) against Prakash Singh, the man who had sold the toxic alcohol to Ravinder. The brothers told VICE World News that the liquor mafia, as well as villagers, discouraged them from pursuing the case. “They argued that why are we approaching the police when no one else has in previous such cases,” said Harpal.
Police arrested Prakash for smuggling liquor. He was released on bail the following day.
Three more men in the village died because of country liquor the same week when Ravinder was in the hospital.
Police registered a report 10 days after Ravinder lost his vision. Within a week of filing that FIR, 123 people died in Punjab after consuming spurious liquor. It came to be known as the Punjab hooch tragedy.
“Only if I had pressed harder and police had acted on our complaint, maybe those lives could have been saved,” said Harpal.
Subsequently, police added murder and culpable homicide charges in the FIR.
“We have suspended three police officers who were probing the case earlier as they failed to discharge their duties,” Dhruman H Nimbale, senior superintendent of police, told VICE World News. They were reinstated at the time of filing this article.
Ravinder first had liquor in the 1990s when he joined the Border Security Forces as a constable. After serving for nine years, he had to leave the force after the death of his father. He did some meagre jobs to sustain but it was not enough. He turned to farming.
Ravinder wanted to get high but he could no longer afford branded alcohol. Around 23 years ago, he started consuming hooch.
Around two weeks after Ravinder lost his sight, he invited fellow villagers at his house and announced his intention to campaign against illicit liquor. The brothers started visiting villages meeting families, particularly addicts, persuading them to give up liquor.
*Amardeep Singh, a college student in Rataul village, considered himself an addict until he met Ravinder. “I got scared when I saw Ravinder's condition,” Amardeep told VICE World News. “I promised them (brothers) that I would change. Me and my friends used to drink hooch every day, but now I also tell them to quit”
While Harpal works in Amritsar, 30 kilometres from Rataul, he said he visits his village as frequently as he can. “I stand outside the liquor vends at times and stop people from buying it.”
Palwinder Singh, a farmer in Rataul village said that he quit alcohol after meeting the brothers. Now he accompanies them when they counsel addicts. “I felt what is the point of drinking hooch when it can leave me dead,” said Palwinder.
Before the Punjab hooch tragedy, Ravinder said that there were 10-12 illicit liquor vends in his village. Now there are four.
Palwinder said, “People have died before also, but no one would utter a word in our village. These brothers have started a conversation.”
Even as the brothers have turned sobriety campaigners, threats from the liquor mafia is a concern. They claim to have been under constant pressure to withdraw the police complaint. Harpal fears that his family might be attacked. “At times, we get blank calls. People abuse us. Some of our friends have asked us not to pursue the case,” said Harpal.
They believe that most of the bootleggers have political connections and commoners are not willing to approach the police even as they keep losing men to toxic alcohol.
Family members of three men who died in the village decided not to approach the police despite repeated requests by Ravinder and Harpal.
Currently, the Punjab hooch deaths are under probe by two special investigating teams. More than seventy people have been arrested so far, confirmed Dhruman H Nimbale. Ravinder has recorded his statement before a district court judge. “I am determined to fight it till a logical end,” he said.
“I want to save the lives of people by making them quit alcohol. That, to me, is justice.”
*Name changed to protect identity.
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