The Supreme Court refused to entertain a PIL seeking the constitution of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe into the Hooch tragedy in Bihar, in the matter of Aryavarta Mahasabha Foundation v. UoI and Anr, and asked the petitioner to approach the Patna High Court for the same. The petition was filed by the Bihar-based Aryavarta Mahasabha Foundation (NGO) through Advocate Pavan Prakash Pathak, seeking conception of a national action plan to restrict the manufacture, trade, and sale of illicit liquor.
The petition also sought guidelines to the state government to appropriately compensate the affected families. The Bench was presided over by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha.
The bench stated that it is permitting the NGO to approach the High Court for reliefs that have been sought, and disposed of the petition. “Whatever reliefs you have sought like -SIT probe into the incident, national plan for curbing manufacture and trade of illicit liquor and compensation to the victims – can all be dealt with by the High Court. The High Courts concerned are well versed with the local situations. They have wider power under Article 226 of the Constitution”, the Supreme Court bench said.
The petition claimed that as 40 people had lost their lives as a result of consuming spurious liquor, while others had been hospitalised and there was no official report on the mishap. Advocate Dhawal Uniyal, counsel appearing for the petitioner, submitted that such incidents happen frequently in other states as well, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab, to name a few.
Although the prohibition of alcohol use is encouraged in the Constitution of India (Article 47, PSP), alcohol policy is purely a state subject. Respective state governments have a monopoly over the liquor market in India – States have full control of regulating alcohol-related excise rates, production, distribution and sale of alcohol. Following a sharp rise in Bihar’s hooch tragedy, the sale and consumption of alcohol were prohibited in Bihar in 2016. The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act was passed in 2016 “to enforce, implement and promote complete prohibition of liquor and intoxicants in the territory of the state of Bihar.”
However, Bihar continues to witness liquor sales on the black market and deaths owing to the consumption of locally made spurious liquor. The petition added that from 2018 to 2020, over 45,000 FIRs were registered under the Act every year.
A recent detailed report released by the Lok Sabha on July 19, 2022, enumerated the top states that have reported maximum deaths due to Hooch tragedies between 2016 and 2020 – Bihar (reported more than 21 deaths), Chhattisgarh (reported 505 deaths), Madhya Pradesh (recorded over 1,200 deaths with the maximum number of deaths reported in 2018), Karnataka (logged a total of 909 deaths) and Punjab (reported 725 deaths). According to the data, over 6,000 deaths were reported between 2016 and 2020 due to the consumption of spurious liquor with the lowest number of deaths in 2020 at 947.
Hooch is an illicitly brewed alcohol. The word “hooch” arised from the Hoochinoo Indians of Alaska, a small tribal community in southern Alaska. Under unrestrained conditions, the desired ethanol can be produced along with methanol or methyl alcohol. Illicit brewers sometimes add industrial methyl alcohol or denatured spirit (a combination of ethanol and methanol) to cut expenses and with the mistaken idea that doing so will enhance potency.
“Hooch is a kind of liquor which is cheap, brewed in small unregulated shanties and does not attract excise tax. This inferior quality drink is usually made after mixing chemicals with water, which is then consumed by people,” the petition elaborated.