Golaghat: In the Halmira Tea Estate in Golaghat district, a hut with its doors shut stands forlorn. Inside, an eleven-year-old Dipali, wearing a bright pink t-shirt, is wandering about sad and lost. Her three younger brothers, Badal, Kundan and Chandan, their heads shaven, are in the process of completing the death rituals of their parents.
The four siblings – all less than eleven years old – have spoken little since February 22, the day they found themselves orphaned. Their parents, Budhwa and Sunita Pujhar, who were tea plantation workers in their mid-thirties, are now mere statistics in that horrific figure Assam has reported as the number of people killed by spurious liquor.
Reliving the fatal day, the children’s uncle Bispot Pujar, tea plantation worker in the same estate, says the ambulance took too long to get to the ill despite several SOS calls. “The daaru (sulai) was contaminated. My brother Budhwa could not see. He had tremors. By the time the doctors gave him an injection, he was dead,” Pujar recalls.
Budhwa’s wife, Sunita Pujhar complained of similar symptoms and was rushed to the Golaghat civil hospital. She succumbed to the toxic liquor in the morning. Budhwa developed symptoms even before the postmortem of his wife was completed and was taken to the Jorhat Medical College and Hospital. At Rs 167 per day, life was always tough for the couple.
The four children have a sense of what has struck them. Basal, all of 10 years, says, “Mod kha ke mar gaya (My father died after consuming sulai).” None of them have a clue of what is going to happen next. When asked whether she wants to stay in the same house with her brothers, Dipali nods in affirmation. She has had some rice in the morning and shakes her head in the negative when asked if she’s hungry. While the BJP government in Assam has announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh each for the kin of the deceased, it seems woefully inadequate.
Maximum Deaths in Halmira Tea Estate
The Halmira tea estate in Golaghat district has seen the highest number of deaths. It was the death of four women aged between 50 and 60 years that first set the alarm bells ringing. Sulai, an illicit local drink made from molasses or laligud, is brewed barely a kilometer from the tea garden. The drink, more potent because of its high alcohol content and much cheaper than other brands, it is common after sundown for both men and women. Every house on the same street as late Sunita and Budhwa Pujhar’s hut has witnessed a death, and some even witnessed multiple deaths – father and mother, mother and son.
Birender Ojha, who works as a store keeper in the estate, says, “I believe the excise department knew about it (the sale of sulai). The excise minister said the government runs on this money. Ever since government came to power, the liquor shops remain open for longer hours – from 11 am to 10 pm – instead of 2 pm to 10 pm earlier.”
Different Tea Estate, Same Tragedy
Same script is playing out at Borholla tea estate, the other epicenter of tragedy in Jorhat district. Here, another set of kids are now orphans. Rahul, a class eight student, is struggling to come to terms with the harsh truth that his mother Anu is dead. Anu also died after drinking the spurious sulai.
Rahul had already lost his father, Sajwan, four years ago to chronic consumption of sulai coupled with poor diet. Even his favourite neighbour Tukun is gone. Loved ones, familiar faces have all been wiped out. “My mother worked hard and used to drink. She died due to sulai,” Rahul says.
His family now depends on the sole earning member, elder brother Bitu, who is a daily wage earner. His two sisters, Priyanka and Kareena, are barely 12 and 14, and younger brother Vikram is eight. The family did not have wood to cremate Anu’s body and therefore had to bury her. Seven other families did the same. On the last count, 34 people from this village lost their lives.
Jayamati and Moushami Santal, in their early 30s, are the two wives that tea garden worker Samaru Santal has left bereaved, apart from a sum of Rs 1,500 and memories of his painful final hours. He died on his way to Titabor Hospital after being referred there by Borhalla Hospital. Jayamati says, “He was so restless that he removed his clothes. I called his brother and other relatives. We took him to the hospital but he could not be saved.”
Jayamati has not only lost her husband, but also her brother and sister-in-law, all on the same day and to the same toxic liquor. The life that lies ahead for her is daunting, to say the least. The Rs 2 lakh that the government has offered as compensation is no consolation at all. “When my husband is no longer alive, what will I do with the money? It will be of some use for the children...but when someone falls sick, money will not take him or her to the hospital… that is the time when the man of the family takes care.”
Jayamati is demanding that liquor now be banned completely. “When my son grows up, he too will start taking sulai. When I could not convince my husband, how will I convince my son? Liquor should not be there in this world.” Her daughter Anjali, 13, sits nearby with her 10-year-old brother Jayanta, who is clothed in white and has his head shaved. She says, “I lost my father, uncle and aunt because of the liquor. It should be banned.”
‘Not Seen Tragedy Like This’
Whatever little the staff at the Jorhat Medical College and Hospital (JMCH) was prepared for was not enough for the magnitude of tragedy unfolded in the nine days starting February 22. A total of 477 patients reported abdominal pain, tremors, failing eyesight and nausea – all symptoms of alcohol poisoning. Seventy-nine lost their lives and of the 54 who are still being treated, nine have completely lost their vision.
Atul Baro, the principal of the JMCH, says, “I have not seen a tragedy like this before. These are daily wage labourers, mostly tea garden labourers. So after heavy workload during the day, it is their habit to get down to drinking. They go and have a glass of alcohol because it is cheap. It is mixed with methyl alcohol. The damage to the body depends on the concentration and amount.”
Dr Ardhendu Sen, medicine specialist in the same hospital, adds, “Methyl alcohol gets metabolised to formal dehyde and formic acid. These are both very toxic to different tissues and every organ in the body, especially to the optic nerves. There is severe metabolic acidosis. There could be renal failure. Sodium potassium levels may also get affected. Heart and brain are affected too.”
For just Rs 10, you get a glass of sulai and a quick high. The drink is harmful and has been banned since decades. But it’s still freely available. In this case, ethanol was mixed either with plain water or sulai to make it more potent, to shorten the brewing time and to increase its volume, and that is what made it fatal.
Deaths, Loss of Vision and Regret
Since most victims were regular consumers like Sunil Karo, it took them a while to realise that the symptoms were deadly. Sunil has survived but he can’t see anymore. A daily wage labourer who manages to find work three times a week, Sunil is filled with remorse and regret. In the male ward of the JCMH, he recalls, “I could see when I went to sleep on Friday, but when I woke up the next morning, I could not see anything. I had two glasses of Sulai. I am responsible. I consumed the alcohol.” Sunil has to raise three young children, Bibia, Ritika and Arlima, all below 12 years of age, who are now with his wife, Mira, in Golaghat.
Twenty-four-year-old Julian Pujhar is also recovering in the same ward. For six days, he could not see at all. But now he reports some perception in his eyes. Asked what is in my hands, Julian struggles to see and then answers correctly, “a book”, but he gets its colour wrong. Julian is shattered on multiple fronts. He feels guilty for not being there for his younger brother Micheal when he took ill due to the same toxic sulai and later died. When asked what would be the first thing he would do when he gets out of the hospital, he says, “I will work, I will not drink anymore. So many people lost their lives due to this.”
Another victim Nemran Baran was admitted to the JMCH on the February 25. He’s been restrained because he’s delusional and keeps asking for sulai. The doctors say these are withdrawal symptoms. He has had two seizures since he was admitted. His wife Huno is at her wit’s end. “Troubles don’t seem to be ending anytime soon. Children called today to say that there was no rice in the house. I called up a neighbour and told them to arrange for some food.” Huno hopes that her husband will be able to shake off his sulai addiction.
In the female ward, Urmilla Kujur, in her 50s, is visibly disturbed with her loss of vision. She recalls, “We were invited for the ceremony to welcome a newborn. We went there and had sulai. When I came home, my head was reeling. I am alright except for the loss of vision.” Urmilla’s husband, who was also admitted, had been discharged.
While an independent enquiry will reveal the cause of death and fix accountability if at all, what is more distressing to note is the fact that once people are back in the villages, they are left entirely on their own to survive. There is no relief or rehabilitation from the government that has reached them. The victims need not just the financial compensation, but also medical follow up and psychological support.
The state government has ordered an enquiry. Even though signs point to methanol poisoning, only forensic reports can confirm the actual cause of death. Vaibhav Chandrakant Mimbalkar, Jorhat SP, believes that the case has been cracked.
“We have come to know that methanol is a poisonous substance which may have played an important role. This methanol looks exactly like ethanol, the smell might be a little different. When mixed with water, it becomes a poisonous compound. Almost 30 ml of methanol is sufficient to kill a person. We have arrested Jitu Sonwal, the original supplier in Jorhat. He had been supplying it in gallons. He has confessed.”
Demands for Ban on Sulai
There have been demands in Assam for prohibition and ban on laligud or molasses, a waste product of the sugar industry that though not fit for human consumption is used to for sulai preparation.
People allege that mixing requires battery carbon and pieces of footwear to quicken the brewing process. “We collected 20,000 signatures and handed them to the chief minister. We do not want subsidised rice or gold for our daughters. Just ban alcohol,” says Prabir Das of the Mod Mukta Dabi Committee. Amit Nag of the Cha Shramik Mukti Sangram Sangathan Swatantra says, “Politicians visit tea gardens just twice, once during elections and the other time during a tragedy like this.”
Until the government acts on the complaints, the women of this area have decided to do everything they can to prevent another Hooch tragedy. Armed with cellphones and torches, they are cracking down on suspected suppliers of sulai. One night, they found just one tipsy villager who was handed over to the police. But the real battle will be to get the men and women in their own homes to say no to sulai.