Trouble Brewing: UP’s Mahua Makers Undeterred by Death Penalty Law

Locals said they continued to brew mahua out of compulsion to meet everyday expenses.

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(This ground report from Varanasi was first published on 12 February 2018. It is being re-posted from The Quint’s archives in light of more than 70 deaths in Uttar Pradesh due to spurious liquor.)

Uttar Pradesh’s mahua brewers are in a fix after the UP governor gave a nod to a law that would make their livelihoods and lives vulnerable.

Recommended by the state government in September 2017, the governor approved the UP Excise Amendment Bill 2017 in January 2018 that would make deaths due to consumption of spurious liquor punishable by death penalty and life imprisonment.

Section 60A of the Act says that if found guilty, the punishment of death caused by spurious liquor is life imprisonment or death penalty along with a hefty fine, ranging between Rs 5 to 10 lakh. The Act also states that if the consumption of alcohol causes permanent disability, those found guilty will get life or rigorous imprisonment.


Why Should This Bother Mahua Makers?

Rama* (name changed) from Varanasi district in UP explained how liquor was made, “We add mahua and jaggery to hot water. The steam that rises from it is used to make the alcohol. Tablets are added, but there is nothing to fear. Even if we consume the tablets, there is no trouble,” Rama told The Quint.

While mahua isn’t lethal in itself it could turn spurious when tablets are added to the mix. Locally called 'Spirit', these tablets are machine-made and bought from the local contractors or thekedars. While we didn't see these tablets, the locals didn't provide clarity on where or how these are manufactured. What they divulged instead was how the tablet kicked in a chemically-induced high.

While Mahua takes between 4-5 days to ferment and thereby inebriate those drinking it, the tablets do the job of inducing a quicker and longer high, ensuring that consumers keep coming back for more. Mahua is sold in plastic packets or disposed glass liquor bottles for a humble price of Rs 30 or 40.

The local labour in the area are regular customers. They come post afternoon to buy mahua and sit and drink it in the same neighbourhood for a good part of the evening. Many have become regular faces.

For the locals, who have lived in fear of frequent police raids, the new law aimed at their profession has been no less than unsettling.

We are very scared. Hope no one dies of spurious alcohol in our village. As it is, our children are without food. We don’t have jobs. If something like this happens, then there will be mayhem in the village.
Vishal Karwal* (Name changed)

Rama added that she was scared the law would be misused by the police to target her community. “If the police try to save themselves, misuse this law and blame us, then what will we do? What if they blame us even if we are not at fault?,” she said.

If Risks Are so High, Why Make Mahua?

Locals said they do this out of compulsion to meet everyday expenses.

Rama further said she would prefer making mahua to unskilled labour, “We work as labour but it is intermittent. While we get work on some days, some other days we don't. Hence, we’d rather work at home on a regular basis. We get beaten up by the police time and again, but at least we are able to feed ourselves.” she said.

Vishal* said there were 20 graduates in the village and not one had a job.

Shama*, who is the elder in the village, says she is willing to do other work but the society has shunned them. She says she tried her hand at cooking but no one eats the food she makes. “There are communities like this in our society. From the very beginning, they have never had the food made by us,” she said.

While the locals say they make mahua to survive, the stringent law and its threat has not been able to dissuade the brewers in the area, threatening them with serious consequences if the home-made liquor were to cause deaths in Uttar Pradesh.

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