Mumbai liquor tragedy: It's business as usual for hooch units in SGNP

Undeterred by 104 people losing their lives to illicit liquor barely 15 km away in Malwani, locals are busy making hooch in a tiny island in the middle of Vihar lake, away from the eyes of forest officials, excise dept and cops

While the families of the 104 people, who died after consuming illicit liquor last week in Malwani, are still to come to terms with the deaths of their loved ones, it’s routine business for hooch manufacturers inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP).

Also read: Hooch being made inside Sanjay Gandhi National Park!

More than six months after a detailed investigation by mid-day revealed about 20 illicit liquor-brewing units inside the SGNP, another unit has been discovered this time on an island in the middle of a lake, where no authorities can reach.

Preparations are on to make spurious alcohol on the tiny island, which can only be reached by boat
Preparations are on to make spurious alcohol on the tiny island, which can only be reached by boat

The Vihar lake inside National Park is a popular destination for youngsters and nature lovers during the monsoon. A trail passing through the Aarey Milk Colony goes towards the lake, from behind Film City hill. Though boards warn people that the area is restricted, many still enter the core forest patch surrounding the lake.

Many youngsters land up here via a trail passing through the tribal hamlets of Maroshi Pada and Sai Bhangoda, which are close to Royal Palms. Several people who trespass upon this area swim in the lake or consume liquor by it.

The island which serves as a base for the hooch-manufacturing unit
The island which serves as a base for the hooch-manufacturing unit

Some also purchase the liquor allegedly manufactured by some of the units inside the forest, about which this paper has reported in detail.

Also read: 5 more families say hooch killed their loved ones, cops blame it on illness

The workers were spotted cleaning the utensils and readying them for the preparation of alcohol
The workers were spotted cleaning the utensils and readying them for the preparation of alcohol

Liquor island
On Sunday (June 21), a nature lover happened to visit the area in the afternoon during a nature trail, and was shocked to see people consuming alcohol and swimming in the Vihar lake. What he saw inside the lake was even more astounding.

The remnants of a liquor bhatti by the Vihar lake
The remnants of a liquor bhatti by the Vihar lake

“A group of three to five people, including women, were setting up a chulha for making illicit liquor on a small island in the middle of Vihar lake. All this happened right in front of our eyes,” alleged the man, who did not wish to be named. The alert environmentalist captured the process on video (mid-day has a copy).

The clip shows around five people who have started cleaning the containers and barrels, so alcohol can be brewed by evening. A local from a nearby area, who also refused to be identified, added, “This is just one of the many illicit liquor-manufacturing units operational in the SGNP core forest area.

They have set up this unit on the island because they know the police and forest department cannot reach them as they don’t have boats.” How do these workers reach this island? They wade towards it atop thick thermocol sheets, or by tying inflated tyre tubes around their bodies.

The preparation usually begins in the evening, starting with the boiling of ingredients. The prepared liquor is transported in the wee hours and is later sold at dirt-cheap prices to labourers, tribals and others who wish to purchase it. This alcohol costs much less than the average country liquor as well.

Even as more than a hundred have died of consuming hooch in the city, the authorities are blissfully unaware of the source of this illicit liquor, which is being made on their watch. Forest department officials, police and the excise department seem to be least concerned.

Official speak

Excise department
State Excise Commissioner Shyamsundar Shinde said, “We have been taking action against illicit liquor-brewing units or bhattis across the state and also in Mumbai, Thane, and Raigad district. After last week’s incident, there has been an increase in action being taken, which is being done in a joint operation with the police.

If there is an illicit liquor-manufacturing unit operational inside the SGNP or on an island in the middle of Vihar lake, then we will take action against those involved tomorrow itself.” Shinde further claimed that the Excise department, in the last one year, has conducted 117 raids in the Malad and Malwani area.

Mumbai Police
Spokesperson Dhananjay Kulkarni said, “I cannot comment anything about the video as I haven’t seen it. All I have to say is that, from time to time, Mumbai Police acted against bootleggers and those selling illicit liquor. In 2015, we conducted 233 raids and we will continue our raids. Action will be taken as per the law.”

Forest department
Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Western Region) Suresh Thorat said, “Time and again, the Forest department takes action against the illicit liquor-brewing units that we find in our jurisdiction.”

When told about this unit still operating in the middle of Vihar lake, he replied, “The Forest department does not have boats for patrolling in the water, because of which it’s difficult to reach the island.

The Forest department patrols the forested patch on regular basis; in the past year, we have destroyed many illicit liquor-brewing units in the jungle. We will have a discussion with the state Excise department and the police, and a joint operation will be conducted to take action.”

Forest minister
Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said, “Three months ago, I had issued orders to the authorities asking them to take action against illegal alcohol-brewing inside Sanjay Gandhi National Park, if there was any.

Accordingly, action was taken. If there are still any such units operating inside the forest, we will act against them. And if we find there are officials who are deliberately avoiding acting against such units, such officials will face suspension.”

mid-day report in November
This paper had exposed last year that nearly 20 liquor-making units were operating inside the SGNP core area. This reporter had detailed how the activity started at 6 pm and how the local goon, who runs the business, had a firm hold over tribal padas in the forest.

A small army of men and women were found to tend to the process last year, and mid-day had found makeshift heating apparatus essentially a chulha by the lake. The size and shape of the stone-and-brick stove seemed conducive to the process of concocting liquor.

Fresh coal, ash and semi-charred sticks could be seen lying around. After the paper published the report, the forest department officials raided a few units and destroyed them.

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