Bengal hooch tragedy: Toll rises to 150; hunt on for alleged kingpin

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Bengal hooch tragedy: Toll rises to 150; hunt on for alleged kingpin
Kolkata:  As West Bengal grapples with the hooch tragedy, the second major incident in less than a week after a major fire killed 91 in Kolkata, the police are now on the hunt for the alleged kingpin who supplied the spurious liquor that has now claimed the lives of over 150 people in the state's South 24 Parganas district.

Khora Badshah, alias Noor Islam Fakir, figured in the initial investigation into the tragedy. He along with another person called Salim is reportedly the man behind the manufacture and distribution of illicit liquor in the affected district. The duo has been operating in the region for long and has an extensive network through the Railways and bus routes that cut across the district. Both men apparently have very high political connections. Badshah for one, according to locals, earlier used to be closely associated with the CPI(M) as was Salim but both seem to have shifted their loyalties after a change in regime. Even as a probe has been ordered by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to be carried out by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in the state, there are apprehensions that both the accused enjoy political patronage which might hamper the probe.

In fact, Ms Banerjee had, in an interview to a Bengali news channel, indirectly blamed the previous Left Front government in the state and said, "Illegal liquor business has been taking place for long in the state. When we try take action to stop this business, resistance comes from different quarters."

Her colleague and state Industry Minister Partha Chatterjee was more pointed in his allegation, claiming yesterday that the CPI(M) was directly involved in adding a poisonous substance to the illicit liquor that has claimed several lives.

His statement led to a furore in the state Assembly today with the Left demanding an explanation from the minister. The leader of the opposition, Surjo Kanto Mishra, raised the issue as soon as the Assembly convened and demanded that Mr Chatterjee prove his statement or retract it. The minister is expected to make a statement in the Assembly later in the day.

Ten people have been arrested so far in connection with the case.

Meanwhile, 150 people are still battling for their lives in several hospitals. Some have been taken to Kolkata which is about 50 kilometres away. Most of the victims are the poorest of the poor like labourers, rickshaw-pullers and hawkers. They fell ill after consuming spurious liquor from several illegal joints on Tuesday night.

The post-mortem report suggests the deaths occurred due to methyl alcohol toxicity which led to respiratory and cardiac failure.

The West Bengal government has announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh each to the families of those who died.

But the families of the victims remain inconsolable. In one home after another in the state's Sangrampur and neighbouring villages, wails of grief can be heard as the news of death streams in.

The widow of Shankar Mahato, a mason, is completely bereft. He was a loving father who was able to somehow make the ends meet. Now his family is suddenly left adrift, without its anchor.

"On waking up in the morning he said his body was quivering. I told him it could be because of stomach trouble. But he said it was because of the drinks. What was I to do? He said his eyesight was becoming foggy, and asked me to take him to the hospital. Then he said that all feeling was leaving his arms and legs. They took him away on a cycle to the nursing home where they said they couldn't do anything. I asked the nurse to look at him quickly, but then he passed away," said his wife.

Shankar is survived by three daughters and a son who is in class VII.

In the village of Borouran, at least eight homes have been bereaved. Families knew the menfolk drank illicit liquor but never imagine it would kill.

"I go to Kolkata every day to work and earn my living. On Wednesday morning when I left home, he was absolutely fine. I return by the 11 pm train every night. So when I came back, I saw he is dead. The culprits should be punished by death, the same way my husband has died. What will I do with my two children? I don't have anybody else to work with me, what will we eat?" said Bishakha Bor, wife of Niranjan who was killed in the tragic incident.

Soon after the incident, area residents had smashed a liquor manufacturing unit at Mograhat and the joints from where it was being sold at Sangrampur. The villagers are angry because in Sangrampur, the illicit brew was selling right under the nose of the police.

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