Life has never been easy for Manisha. But she is one resolute woman. She feels sorry for her family. Especially her father Bhupatbhai Khadedha of Rojid village. He is a sewerage cleaner. He makes Rs 100 a day. “All men in my family drink,” says Manishaben, 31. And then she corrects herself. “All in my family drank”.
Manisha lost her husband Deepak in the hooch tragedy along with Tika, her 35-year-old brother. “Not just in my family, in every family here, all men drink. We live a dreaded life”, Manisha, a strong woman, controlling her tears told Vibes of India. “I do not know why my father did not drink this”, she said pointing at Bhupatbhai who was sitting doing the last puja to ensure that his young son and son-in-law “go to heaven”. “So that they do not get such a dreadful life”, Manisha said. There was no Brahmin available to do the last puja rituals so a brahmin was summoned from a nearby village.
The poor villagers shelled out whatever money they had to ensure that everyone dead in the village at least get a good death. “And so that they are not born again in this village”, Manisha said. Manisha is a mother of two kids. She is illiterate and does not know what she will do to raise the kids. She has never seen a school. In fact, Manisha is worried that she has a 7-year-old daughter. How will I raise her and get her married? I want her to be married outside this village, she adds. She says her son is five and in the next two or three years, I will ensure he starts bringing some money to the family.
She is sad but in complete control of her emotions. “My husband and brother did such miserable jobs that they could not get even a few hours sleep if they did not drink”, Maisha tells Vo! adding that there was no prohibition in Rojid. When informed that consuming liquor was a crime, she reacted: but then why did the police not stop these addas. We women would have been so happy and relieved”, Manisha adds.
Bhupatbhai says he also drinks because alcohol only can give him a few hours of sleep. You hear this same story all across Rojid and Chokdi and villages falling under Barwala taluka of Botad district. Rojid and Chokdi are non-descript villages with a population of less than 7000 and 3600 people respectively. The ambitious have migrated to bigger towns like Ahmedabad and Surat. Barwala is a taluka place. When Team Vibes of India reached these places, there was nothing but despair.It is only Barwala which is a taluka place and has a population of over 74,000 people.
All the 36 people who have died in the latest hooch tragedy of Gujarat belong to Barwala taluka. Over 85 people are in various hospitals, many of them battling for their lives with kidney failures and other serious ailments.
In Rojid village, so far 13 people have been reported dead. All of them were daily wagers. Most of them cleaned sewerage and went out seeking jobs as menial labourers in nearby towns. “most of the days, they came back without work”, says Hirabhai
All the dead belonged to socially and economically disadvantaged communities. They did not earn more than Rs 100 to 150 per day which makes their monthly income less than Rs 3000. This means $ 37.50 cents a month. Even according to Indian standards, they belonged to very poor strata of society. “They are disappointed people in life. They hardly have any education. Either they had miserable jobs or they would not get any labour. So at the end of the day, both the categories: the employed and the unemployed were a frustrated lot. And they resorted to liquor”, says Dungarani, Sarpanch of the Rojid village. There is so much poverty in Rojid village that none of the living family members even had the money for the last rites. The village Sarpanch Jigar Dungarani, 32, paid for the expenses.
Botad MLA Rajesh Gohil spoke to Vibes of India. He shared, “I am disgusted with whatever is happening. People are dying like they are some zombies. We have lost count of people in different hospitals. I am still running around. At least 88 people are in various hospitals. The dead have gone. The families are left without any financial support. There are families which have lost young sons who, whatever menial job they did, were the backbones of their families”.
According to Rajesh Gohil, “alcohol is openly sold in our villages. I had personally requested all top officers, and written several letters pleading that prohibition should be implemented strictly but no concrete steps were taken. Worse, the government instead of admitting is resorting to cover up claiming that these people directly drank the chemical. Maybe they will pressurise the bootleggers who will also admit that they sold chemicals only and not liquor. But the truth is out for you to see. The Government calls those who have consumed the liquid as drunkards in the FIR but refuses to admit it was alcohol. These men went to their regular liquor dens. They are not fools to drink anything. They know the taste. They trusted their bootleggers. And they asked and paid for liquor. They got it and most of them drank there only. The government says it was not alcohol. It is a cover-up”, he adds.
Refusing his picture, the MLA says, “this is no time for publicity. I am distressed. But do write that the tragedy has taken place because the BJP government is totally into corruption. Everyone from politicians to the police is corrupt. We took out a rally in the past. We did public demonstrations but the bootleggers are more connected than us MLAs so they would not stop their business. They would boast that they had government and police blessings, says an anguished Rajesh Gohil who is a Congress MLA.
In Rojid village, it was a sad scene. The poor people could not afford individual funeral processions. So they dumped the dead in a tractor borrowed from a nearby village. There is no electric crematorium. Most wood had dampened due to the monsoon rains. The bodies were cremated in an open ground. “no, they did not charge us for the wood. Everyone in our village is shocked. All of us knew that our family men drank. But then if they did not, they could not sleep”, Dharmendra Vasiya, a farmer told Vo!. He said he has not seen so many dead bodies at one go in his village.“This is the biggest tragedy that has ever hit this village in our history”, Dharmendra said.
Dharmendra told Vibes of India that Chokdi was the main daru destination. It was Dharmendra who noticed something was amiss in his friend and was the first person who took his friend Vashram Shantibhai,a Rojid native to the Primary Health Centre. His 30-year-old friend Vashram died at Sir T hospital in Bhavnagar where he was shifted later. “I cannot believe I have lost so many friends within 24 hours”. Dharmendra did not admit but others told Team Vibes of India that “Dharmendra drinks but he drinks only English”.Dharmendra did not deny this. “You cannot find a single man who does not drink in Rojid” claims Madhuben Vaghela who is fighting and praying that her young son does not die. Her son was one of the 100-plus people who drank the spurious life-consuming liquor.
In Chokdi village, three people have died. This is a big shock for the village with less than 3600 population. However, chokdi is the main liquor destination. Often people from Rojid also would come here as the country liquor available in this small village at the intersection of the taluka headquarters would often have desi daaru with the highest kick. Barwala is a taluka place with better economics. People here could even afford Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and only the very poor would go for locally manufactured country liquor. Four people died in Barwala. For the people of Chokdi village, it was a difficult task as the affected victims were moved to Ahmedabad. Three of them died and had to be transported. The family members did not have money. But the Gujarat police ensured that they brought the bodies under protection. Dharmendra broke down when one after another body started coming back home.
Vashram’s was the first body to come to the village. Vashram’s family is impoverished. Dharmendra helped out the family. “I do not find any fault. These are all such poor people. I go to my farm but they go inside gutters. They touch other people’s latrines. I find it totally justified that they drank. The bigger culprits are the police. They could have stopped these dens. The government is even a bigger culprit. They could have given dignified jobs and employment to my village friends”, a frustrated Dharmendra said. “I do not fear if they book me too but I am going to speak. The government is responsible for all the deaths. We don’t want any more bodies coming to Rojid or Chokdi. But they say many are serious”, he added.
Sources confirmed to Vibes of India that all bodies sent to respective villages were dispatched with police protection to avoid any skirmishes.
Reports: Ajit Tiwari, Natasha Baxi, Sakshee Singh, and Surbhi Vasavada
Photo Credit: Kunal Kanodiya