IN March 1990, I was serving as ASP of Mangrol subdivision in Junagadh district of Gujarat. One morning, the SP rang up and informed me that many persons had died in a hooch tragedy at Sutrapada village in the adjoining Veraval subdivision. He told me to rush to the spot, handle the situation and conduct an investigation. I reached Veraval, a coastal town where the Somnath temple is located, within an hour and went to the government hospital, where chaos reigned. Of the victims brought there, 12 had died, even as more cases were trickling in.
With Gujarat being a prohibition state, any hooch tragedy is viewed as a failure of the local police. That’s why the SP had sent me, an outsider in the subdivision, to investigate the case. The incident was also an embarrassment for the government that had been sworn in a few days ago.
But I had no experience of such cases. Luckily, an ASI in the local staff had seen a similar tragedy. He told me that in these matters, the police usually threatened to book the victims under the Prohibition Act if they came out in the open. So, they went into hiding and surfaced only when their condition deteriorated, by which time it was often too late.
I sent a team led by a Sub-Inspector to trace all affected persons. The team brought the remaining victims to the hospital.
The ASI also gave me an idea of how a typical hooch tragedy happened. He said the bootleggers used crude methods to make cheap liquor out of denatured spirit (methylated alcohol), which is unfit for human consumption. Sometimes, in the processing, methanol did not get fully neutralised and that’s when tragedy used to strike.
From the doctors treating the victims, I learnt that when methylated alcohol was consumed, the human body first absorbed ethyl alcohol and meanwhile, methyl alcohol passes out in the urine. But when there was no ethyl alcohol left in the body, methyl alcohol was metabolised, forming formaldehyde and formic acid, thereby causing blindness and death. So, the victims were administered ethyl alcohol in small doses until all methyl alcohol had been flushed out.
But the doctors had run out of ethyl alcohol and needed a sufficient quantity of the IMFL (Indian-made foreign liquor). I was in a quandary. Where to find it at a short notice? An officer suggested that we should take it from the police malkhana where IMFL seized in cases pending trial was lying.
Technically, it was court property, but there was an emergency here. So, I asked the SHO to supply the required quantity to the hospital and obtain a receipt. Though the death toll went up to 20, we saved nearly 50 lives. Our method withstood the scrutiny of the media and an inquiry by a joint legislative committee. We also secured conviction and the trial court sentenced the main accused to 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment. However, what gave us utmost satisfaction was that we were able to save lives.
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