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 Anju Pujor (40) and Nikita Ghatowar (24) became widows after they lost their husbands in the recent hooch tragedy
Anju Pujor (40) and Nikita Ghatowar (24) became widows after they lost their husbands in the recent hooch tragedy|EastMojo image
DOCUMENTARY

Ahead of polls, Assam’s hooch victims want action, not sympathy

Over 160 lives were snuffed out in a matter of few days due to consumption of deadly, country-made liquor; family members say the killer brew should be banned

Jayanta K Goswami

Jayanta K Goswami

Mukut Medhi

Golaghat: At Halmira tea estate in Assam's Golaghat district, almost every household lost a family member in the recent hooch tragedy that snuffed out over 160 lives in a matter of few days. The area is still in mourning. In Halmira alone, 58 residents died after drinking illicit liquor.

Like many others, Nikita Ghatowar (24) lost her husband, Karthik Ghatowar (28). Karthik was one of those victims who died after consuming deadly, country-made liquor, locally called 'sulai', on that fateful day -- February 21.

"We want consumption of liquor to be stopped here at the tea estate. We have to take care of our children. We want a better environment for our next generation," said Anju Pujor (40), who, too, lost her husband, Gopal Pujor (50).

“All my four nephews are in shelter home. Ahead of election, we want the political parties to speak about development. The situation should become such that children of tea garden workers should also get proper exposure so that they also get opportunity to be university teachers, doctors, etc. We don’t want liquor here,” said Bisputiua Pujor, a local resident.

Arjun Pujor, who lost his wife, Maloti, also wants liquor to be banned. Arjun, who is also a priest at nearby Shiva temple, urges politicians to stop distributing liquor during their election campaign.

“I am very happy that I managed to survive. I took a single peg. I could feel severe stomach-ache after which I was shifted to Jorhat civil hospital. I want liquor to be banned at the tea estate. However, we will give our vote to those who give us money in this election,” said Ranjit Pujor (26), a survivor.

Halmira tea estate, Golaghat district’s first tea estate run under a public private partnership (PPP) mode
Halmira tea estate, Golaghat district’s first tea estate run under a public private partnership (PPP) mode
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Damage control

A massive awareness drive is now in place to spread awareness about the ill-effects of consumption of illicit liquor. Posters and banners are up across the district, especially in the civil lines, hospitals and other public places.

Joining the ‘campaign’ is Pranjal Sharma, medical officer, Halmira tea estate. “As a precautionary measure, we have formed an anti-liquor committee to create awareness on the issue. A massive awareness programme is a necessity here. On the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls, I would like to urge the political parties not to promote liquor during their election campaign,” he added.

Recalling that fateful night, Sharma said: “I received the first case around 4.10 pm on February 21. Gradually, the number of affected people started increasing. Immediately realising the importance of the issue, we rushed to the spot and collected some samples. Conditions worsened as time progressed. We accordingly shifted all of them to the civil hospital here. Next day, we shifted 54 patients to Jorhat. Altogether, 96 persons were referred from here. Later, with active support from all concerned we seized 75-100 litres of ‘sulai’ from the civil lines of the tea estate.”

GL Sharma, general manager of Salmara tea estate, is taking no chances either. “We are taking utmost care to prevent liquor in the garden. Our doctor is also involved in this. We are organising meetings. We are trying our best to prevent liquor in the tea garden,” he added.

Over 160 people, including over 58 from Halmira tea estate in Assam’s Golaghat district, died after consuming  spurious liquor on February 21 and 22
Over 160 people, including over 58 from Halmira tea estate in Assam’s Golaghat district, died after consuming  spurious liquor on February 21 and 22
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Election fever amidst liquor ‘infection’

Even though the affected people of the recent hooch tragedy are shedding tears remembering their near and dear ones, electioneering in the tea estate is gradually gaining momentum.

“It seems that under the leadership of Prime Minister NarendraModi, I can see various development activities in the tea gardens in the state. We can see construction of roads, toilets etc., here. Free sugar, rice at Re 1 per kg and other development schemes have been introduced. Every tea worker has received money in their respective bank accounts. One thing is very clear that tea workers are much advanced. I hope these workers will definitely think twice is any political party approaches them to vote against liquor. Development is the main issue in this election in tea gardens of Assam,” said Satyajit Borthakur, social worker.

Salmara tea estate falls in the prestigious Kaliabar Lok Sabha seat in Assam. It seems that the BJP has gained popularity among tea garden voters here. But due to the BJP-AGP alliance, the saffron party has given the seat to its ally, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). But experts feel that it will be tough for both the BJP and the AGP to educate the large-scale uneducated tea voters about the symbol against which the EVM button will be pressed.

"Electioneering is gaining momentum gradually. We will vote this time on issue relating to development only. If we don’t get any BJP candidate, then we have to think and take a good decision,” said BanuNayak, a labour supervisor.

Amardeep Orang, former leader, Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA), said overall development of tea workers is one their main agendas this election. “Lack of proper education and health facilities have ruined our future. Tea garden workers are deprived a lot from all modern facilities. Ration facilities for tea workers must be improved. We also demand the authorities concerned to include the tea community among the 6th schedule of the constitution. Trade union leaders of the tea community should also be blamed for the poor scenario of the tea workers of the state,” he added.

It seems that the tea garden workers of Salmara TE have made up their mind against supply and consumption of illicit liquor in this tea estate. Only time will tell how far the district administration and the people here manage to prevent the social menace.