September 27, 2016 2:43:28 am
In this village known for its saris and migrant labourers, and where Gujarat’s biggest hooch tragedy since 2009 has left 23 people dead over two weeks, relatives of the dead talk about how easily hooch is available here despite strict prohibition laws.
Said Dhaniram Dubey, Vareli’s first migrant sarpanch, “After working 12 hours a day, the labourers get tired and are addicted to smoking, tobacco, liquor or ganja. Country-made liquor is easily found here and in neighbouring villages. Most of those who died after drinking hooch were migrants.”
With the deaths coming within a month of his taking over, and with the racket suspected to involve neighbouring districts, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has ordered the Anti-Terrorism Squad to investigate. Police have arrested 14 people so far, all local bootleggers. The last three arrested, including main accused Ramu Yadav, have been charged under section 65 (A) of the Bombay Prohibition (Gujarat Government) Act, stipulating the death penalty. The Act had been brought in following the 2009 Ahmedabad hooch tragedy that killed 160.
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With the Opposition mounting protests, top police officers including the police chief of Surat district and the range IGP have been transferred. Earlier, a three-member panel of police and forensic officials had investigated the matter. The government hasn’t revealed its findings.
The first to die was Ramnarayan Yadav, a textile worker from Uttar Pradesh, who collapsed on September 7. Farm labourer Nitesh Rathod, 21, lost his mother and sister. Nitesh said both Ramila, 50, and Neeta, 30, who was separated from her husband, were “habitual drinkers” like many others in “our community”. Nitesh’s father Shanker died of illness around five years ago, and his grandmother now keeps him company in their mud-house, with a plastic sheet serving as roof.
“My mother and sister worked in the fields. They would come home drunk. I would fight with them,” Nitesh says.
He couldn’t raise the money to cremate them, and the panchayat bore the expenses.
Situated on NH 8 connecting Gujarat to Maharashtra, Vareli village has a population over 50,000, a majority of them migrants. Apart from sarpanch Dubey, most of the panchayat members too are migrants.
Dubey says they came to Vareli due to its thriving textile industry. The village now has multi-storey buildings where labourers live on rent, as well as shopping plazas and business centres. “In the 1980s there were only four dyeing and printing units, including the famous Garden Vareli mill that made saris by that name. Now there are over 50 dyeing and printing mills and also powerloom factories and embroidery units,” Dubey says.
Around 80 per cent of the migrant labourers stay in rented quarters shared by up to 10 people each, and only 20 per cent with their family.
Among those who died in the hooch tragedy was Manish Tiwari (30), from Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh. Ramnivas Yadav, who shared a room with Tiwari, said, “Yadav had been working in a dyeing house for seven years. He was addicted to liquor. I often advised him to stay away from it. That night, he came home drunk and slept without eating. After an hour, he woke up with high fever and started vomiting. We took him to hospital, but he died.”
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