The Hooch Tragedy which struck half of Bangalore and Tamilnadu on May 18, 2008 still remains fresh in my mind. I can recollect the night when I got a message about 20 bodies being shifted to Bowring Hospital in Shivajinagar and the person told me that they had consumed spurious liquor. I could not believe the scenes that followed therefater at the hospital and at the Roshan Mohalla slum in DJ Halli. I revisited the place on November 17, 2008 and I was shocked to see that life in the village was back to normal, with none of the promises made by the BBMP or local politicians had been kept. I saw little kids walking around sniffing whitener, gulping down bottles of cough syrup and men lying on garbage dumps after consuming spurious liquor. The mark of the hooch tragedy still remains, but, nobody wants to stick on to it. Women who lost their husbands have preferred to get on with their lives. It was a strange feeling which left a mark on my mind when I walked out of DJ Halli.
This was the most memorable article which my colleague and I wrote after we visited the eerie Roshan Mohalla in DJ Halli on May 31, 2008.
Roshan Mohalla in DJ Halli is like a ghost town. A despairing silence reigns over the place. The residents are still trying to understand what hit them on May 18 when 60 people died after drinking illicit liquor. This is the worst hit locality. Almost everyone seems to have lost someone — a family member, friend or acquaintance — to the deadly brew. The sense of hopelessness is almost palpable among those who have lost their fathers, sons, brothers — all breadwinners. More than 160 people from the region are still being treated at the government hospitals in Bangalore. One of those affected is Muniyamma, who lives in the smallest house in Roshan Mohalla. The woman who works as a labourer and doubles as a domestic help to make ends meet, lost her husband Nagaraj to the brew. She has had trouble enough, but her problems just seem to be beginning. Muniyamma says she has received the allotted Rs 50,000 for the death of Nagaraj, but that is no consolation. “My mother Parvathamma is fighting for life at Star Hospital in Madiwala. They do not provide free treatment. She is in the ICU and we pay almost Rs 5,000 every day. Now we do not know what to do, as we do not have any money left,” she says. Her younger sister Parvathi, who was also married to Nagaraj, has not received her share of the compensation. “I have one son who is studying. Muniyamma has one young child. Now, we women are the only ones left in the family to bear the expenses and take care of everything,” weeps Parvathi. DJ Halli is full of similar stories. Shanta lost her husband Dore and older son Selva, both labourers and is desperately trying to find a way to feed his children. “I have another son who is also a labourer. Now he is the only earning member in the family. We are still trying to pick ourselves up,” she said. The hustle and bustle that was there in the locality is now missing. A strong smell of DDT pervades the air. Walking down a street that has more than 200 huts, there is little to hear other than the echoes of the voices of little girls who are either orphaned or left with a single parent. Occasionally, you hear the sound of a television programme coming from one of the houses. The only other sounds are those of the self-important honking of trucks belonging to the excise department, whose officials have descended on the village. It is a bit late in the day, but they are going about their task of checking and probing. The villagers have reacted to their presence with a mixture of resentment and bewilderment. They wonder what department officials were doing when the bootleggers were plying their trade before the tragedy. Why could they not have foreseen what had happenned? After all, that is their task. Better enforcement could have spared people such as Sampurna the agony of having to bear the entire burden herself. Sampurna’s world came crashing down when her sister Rani (38) fell victim to the killer brew. She left two children — Rani’s husband had deserted her long ago, and she was fending for Devi (12), Idumba (5) and her mother Ramayi (60) on her own. Now there is only Sampurna to take care of them, and she has her own family to look after. The responsibilities have doubled but there is no additional income for a deeply apprehensive Sampurna. She wonders how she will provide for everyone. “It is a good thing that the government is giving us Rs 50,000 but I feel that it is not enough,” she says. Given the awesome scale of her responsibilities, that is an understatement. Fathima, who lost her husband 10 years ago, has nowhere to go after the death of her two sons — Maula and Mehboob. Both men were married and have minor children. There is no surviving male. “Who will now fend for the women and children?” she asks. Fathima’s daughter has heard that her brother was poisoned to death at the hospital. “Mehboob was recovering. Nobody can explain how his condition deteriorated suddenly,” she says. While the hordes of social workers, government officials and political leaders come and go, waxing lyrical about the plight of DJ Halli and what lies ahead, the residents of Roshan Mohalla are busy with the humbler task of fetching water. That is something of which the area has never had enough. Maybe it is the only remnant of business as usual in the layout. After the arrest of Soundar Rajan, who is said to have supplied the spurious liquor, the villagers have just one question: “Will the government and others open their eyes and see the sorry state of the families that the deceased have left behind?” Perhaps they will. Or maybe the next tragedy will distract their attention altogether. The people have learnt, in the hardest, most painful way possible, that they could have prevented this calamity if only they had known that spurious liquor is the kiss of death.