GOLAGHAT, MARCH 10: While contaminated sulai has been largely blamed for the Assam hooch tragedy, police are probing whether it was this that killed or a concoction of “spirit and water” sold as sulai.
Sulai is prepared by fermenting molasses, often mixed with alum and calcium carbide. While an illicit drink as per Assam’s Excise Department, it is popular as the alcohol content of sulai is higher than the rice beer traditionally prepared at home. Some sulai producers are known to add used batteries and urea to make fermentation faster.
Among the 47 arrested across Golaghat and Jorhat in the wake of the tragedy are traders and businessmen who sold molasses. One of the main molasses sellers of Golaghat district, Lalchand Agarwal, is absconding.
However, a senior police officer said sulai may not be directly responsible for the tragedy. In dying statements, several people spoke about consuming spirit mixed with water. Preparing this is more profitable as it involves “less effort, more money”. “You do away with long fermentation procedures. People get high easily and your business thrives,” an officer said. A crackdown against sulai over the last few months, timed with the recent panchayat polls and the coming general elections, may have pushed sales of this drink.
While it is ethanol, which is present in alcoholic drinks, that is usually mixed with water, police suspect this time what might have got mixed is methanol, a toxic industrial solvent.
According to the police officer quoted above, trucks loaded with spirit travel through Golaghat from a distillery in Khatkhati in adjoining Karbi Anglong district, and pilferation is easy.
But not everyone is buying the spirit theory. Prabin Das, a Golaghat-based anti-alcohol activist, said, “The ‘spirit theory’ is being promulgated to save businessmen who sell molasses and are involved in the hooch business. These businessmen say the molasses they stock is used as cattle-feed. But the district ‘gau palak sangha’ wrote to the District Commissioner recently saying it is not used as cattle-feed.”
An Excise Department official said there could be a third possibility: spirit mixed with sulai to increase its “kick”.
Golaghat Superintendent of Police Pushpraj Singh said, “We are waiting for the forensic report.” (Courtesy: IE)