The making of hooch, and its dangerous dance with chemistry and society

Policy flip-flops, poor regulation, disregard for safety standards have triggered thousands of hooch deaths; states could perhaps learn from Goa's success with Feni

Addressing economic, regulatory, and societal factors contributing to alcoholism can curb the frequency of hooch tragedies and protect public health. Image: iStock

It has been 15 years since one of India’s worst hooch tragedies unfolded – as many as 180 people had died after consuming a lethal brew of illicit alcohol.

The tragedy, which occurred on May 18, 2008, saw labourers from Bengaluru, Kolar in Karnataka, and Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, lose their lives to moonshine (illicit liquor) laced with camphor and tobacco.

Fast forward to the present day, and the hooch menace is far from over. Fifty-five people have died after consuming spurious liquor in Tamil Nadu’s Kallakurichi district over the past few days, while over 30 are in a critical condition.

According to government data, hooch has been the death knell for over 6,000 individuals in the past five or six years.

Economic disparities

Understanding why hooch tragedies continue to occur requires an examination of several intertwined factors: economic disparities, regulatory failures, and societal pressures. Economic disparities play a pivotal role in the recurring hooch tragedies.

A significant segment of the Indian population, particularly in rural areas and among the urban poor, can't afford legally produced alcohol. Consequently, they resort to hooch, which sells for as less as ₹10-₹30 per 100 ml pouch and is easily accessible.

Distilled in backyard operations, hooch production is unregulated and often laced with toxic substances like methanol to increase its potency, leading to disastrous health consequences when consumed.

No decisive liquor control

While the state governments scramble to take corrective action, their inconsistent stand on liquor sales has only fanned the flames of this problem. Despite the legality of liquor sales and consumption in various Indian states, the implementation is frequently hampered by a myriad of restrictions.

A case in point is the controversy surrounding the Delhi government's new liquor policy, which was replaced with the previous one due to criticism. The aftermath saw a slew of lawsuits against former minister Manish Sisodia, culminating in his arrest by the CBI on fraud charges in issuing vendor licenses.

The Enforcement Directorate has also arrested Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal for his alleged role in the liquor policy scam case, leading to his incarceration in Tihar jail.

Policy flip-flops

Delhi's previous liquor policy, introduced in November 2021, was hailed as one of the most transparent in the country until it was withdrawn after censure from the Lieutenant Governor. However, this incident highlights the fickleness of the authorities when it comes to taking a decisive stand on liquor control.

Societal pressures and cultural norms around alcohol consumption further exacerbate the problem.

In many Indian communities, drinking alcohol is a deeply ingrained social custom, particularly among men. In addition, the societal pressure to consume alcohol and economic constraints often drive people towards hooch.

Lethal chemistry

India's alcoholic beverage industry is divided into four categories: Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), arrack or country liquor, toddy, and hooch. Hooch, colloquially known as "moonshine" or "bootleg", refers to low-quality alcohol, often illicitly produced.

The preparation of hooch involves a dangerous dance with chemistry. It begins with the fermentation of a sugar source, often grains, fruits, or sugarcane. Next, yeast is added, and the mixture is left to ferment. The resultant 'mash' or 'wash' is then subjected to distillation.

Unfortunately, this heating and cooling process can amplify the concentration of methanol, a toxic compound that must be discarded to ensure a safe end product.

The distillation process calls for a delicate balance of temperatures to produce potent yet safe liquor. However, the hooch-makers need sophisticated equipment and knowledge for such precision. As a result, they often resort to dangerous substances, such as battery acid or even paint thinner, to increase the potency of their brews, leading to lethal outcomes.

IMFL, country liquor

On the contrary, the production of IMFL involves stringent quality control, advanced technologies, and specific raw materials, unlike the haphazard approach seen in the production of country liquor. IMFL is legal, taxed, and branded, while country liquor often dwells in legal grey areas, making it a potentially dangerous choice.

Country liquor is often made from locally available ingredients such as molasses (a by-product of sugar production), grains, or fruits. IMFL, conversely, is typically made from specific grains like barley or rye for whisky or specific fruits like grapes for brandy. The production of country liquor is often less sophisticated and may involve traditional distillation methods, sometimes in small-scale, local distilleries or even at home.

Toddy, another traditional Indian alcohol, has an entirely different preparation method. The sap is extracted from palm trees and left to ferment naturally due to the airborne yeasts. As a result, toddy is typically enjoyed fresh and has a lower alcohol content than its other counterparts.

Compensation conundrum

One issue that gets debated every time there is an incident of a hooch tragedy is compensation provided to the victims. Tamil Nadu has announced ₹10 lakh compensation for the families of those who died after consuming illicit liquor and ₹50,000 for those undergoing treatment.

Some states like Bihar, however, have gone back and forth on their decision on providing compensation. In 2022, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said there should be no sympathy for the victims of hooch tragedy in the wake of the deaths due to consumption of illicit liquor in Saran district. In 2023, however, his government announced an ex-gratia of ₹4 lakh for the next of the kin of people who died after consuming spurious liquor in Motihari, East Champaran district.

While the liquor lobby claims that prohibition leads to higher consumption of illicit liquor, the hooch tragedies in states like Tamil Nadu, where alcohol is not banned, clearly show that the lack of consistent government policies, inadequate regulation, and the lackadaisical approach to safety standards in the production of local liquors, are all feeding into the hooch tragedy that is continually unfolding in the country.

Lack of enforcement

According to a newspaper report, the findings of the Mehta Commission in Gujarat, formed in the aftermath of the 2009 Ahmedabad disaster that resulted in over 140 deaths, revealed a meagre percentage of bootlegger convictions. The police's inability to monitor their illicit operations despite having relevant information became apparent.

The ongoing hooch tragedies in India are a complex problem requiring comprehensive and multi-layered solutions.

Addressing the economic, regulatory, and societal factors contributing to the problem can curb the frequency of these tragedies and protect public health.

Goa’s Feni: Happy hours?

Goa, a cultural melting pot of Indian and Portuguese cultures, has successfully adopted its locally distilled arrack, Feni, overcoming the societal stigma associated with arrack.

Feni, a sort of arrack made from coconut palm sap or cashew apples, is revered in Goan culture. Its creation is an art form passed down through generations that are strongly steeped in centuries-old traditions.

Unlike in other jurisdictions where arrack manufacturing is unregulated, the Goan government has imposed severe rules to assure the quality and safety of Fenny. As a result, it has been granted Geographical Indication (GI) designation, which adds legitimacy and importance to it.

Behind Feni's success

A number of things contributed to Goa's success with Fenny. To begin with, the state's strict regulatory framework ensures that Feni is manufactured under controlled settings, avoiding the chance of contamination.

Second, Feni has been skillfully marketed as an essential component of the Goan experience, appealing to both locals and tourists. Combined with its distinct flavour and connection to Goan heritage, this marketing technique has enabled Feni to carve out a position in the crowded spirits industry.

Feni's acceptance has also been aided by its incorporation into Goa's culinary scene. It is frequently served in local 'tavernas' and beach shacks and is often paired with traditional Goan food. This widespread acceptance of the liquor in Goa's gastronomic scene has solidified its place in local culture.

However, Feni's path is more than just a success tale of a local spirit; it offers a realistic model for other Indian states dealing with the arrack paradox.

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