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Deadly cocktails

Farcical prohibition, which cannot be enforced, leads to illegal, unhygienic and unsupervised moonshine production.

By Naziha Syed Ali

On May 11, 1977, the day after the National Assembly passed the Prohibition Bill, the religious affairs minister at the time, Maulana Kausar Niazi, described the measure as one that “would slam the door on corruption."

With the benefit of hindsight, one could say that what transpired within the span of the next few days, let alone the next few decades, would indicate otherwise. So what, if anything, did Prohibition achieve, particularly where illegally produced liquor was concerned?

On May 10, 1977, the very day the Prohibition Bill was passed, Excise personnel busted an illicit distillery in Karachi. According to a report in Dawn, “On information that ‘Kalakot Whisky’ was being manufactured in Lyari, a raid was conducted on a house … in Singo Lane at about 5a.m.” Fifty gallons of moonshine were seized and three men arrested.

A few days later, another distillery was raided in Golimar, also in Karachi. Shortly after, two more were busted in the same city. The total haul: 95 gallons. Quoting the then director excise, Dawn reported that four breweries had been busted within four weeks in Karachi, whereas the last time one had been unearthed was way back in 1969.

“It’s quite simple, really,” said Jamil Ahmed Khan, a diplomat, as well as retired army and police official. “Before Prohibition, bribery rates were very low, but afterwards they shot up — perhaps even tenfold.”

Illegal distilleries did not spring up overnight in Pakistan. Moonshine was manufactured even before Prohibition in order to avoid paying the high taxes on alcohol and have a cheaper, hence more attractive, product to sell.

“There were entire villages that were famous for making such liquor,” said former IG Sindh Afzal Ali Shigri, who was superintendent police, Nazimabad, Karachi, during the ‘70s. “One of them was Khamiso Goth near Peshawar. Another was Landi Arbab. Both were in NWFP, present KP.”

At the time, bars and licenced wine shops were a common sight in urban centres. According to Iftikhar Rasheed, former IG Police, “There was even a wine shop at the Lahore railway station. However, only Karachi and Rawalpindi, were ‘wet’ cities, meaning that here it was legal to consume alcohol even on the street.”

These long-serving police officials contend that deaths from illicit liquor weren’t unheard of even then.

“People didn’t get to know about it. One, there wasn’t so much media then,” said Mr Shigri. “Secondly, more organic methods were used to brew moonshine, although even these could cause death if improperly employed. But yes, there weren’t the large-scale tragedies such as those you hear of now.”

On April 17, 1977, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to counter conservative elements spearheading the nationwide political agitation against his government at the time, announced a slew of ‘Islamisation’ measures, including Prohibition, effective immediately.

The most obvious offenders were dealt with first. In Karachi, over 145 liquor godowns, shops, bars and clubs were sealed within 48 hours. According to a contemporary news report, “The Excise Department earned Rs33 lakh [Rs3.3 million] monthly as excise duty on the sale of liquor in the City and thus the provincial government would lose the annual revenue of Rs4 crore [Rs40 m]”.

(Interestingly though, army messes — unit messes, that is, not the larger station and corps messes — stayed ‘wet’ for at least two more years even though the puritanical General Zia was army chief, soon to become chief martial law administrator after overthrowing the government in a coup. “The purchase of alcohol used to be included in the monthly ‘messing’ bill,” said Mr Khan.)

However, Prohibition spawned a large number of criminal syndicates, and the excise department’s loss in terms of revenue from the sale of liquor proved to be a windfall for its personnel and for the police. “Black Label whisky, for example, is available for Rs1,500 in Dubai, but in Pakistan it’s for Rs7,500. Who do you think is pocketing the difference?” said former DIG Dost Ali Baloch. “The same goes for illicit liquor production. It can’t happen without police collusion.”

  —Photos by Hussain Afzal/White Star
—Photos by Hussain Afzal/White Star

In the years after the country officially went dry, manufacture of illegal hooch picked up to keep pace with rising population and increasing demand. The consequences weren’t very different from that of prohibition in 1920’s US. Writing about that period, historian Michael Lerner has said, “As the trade in illegal alcohol became more lucrative, the quality of alcohol on the black market declined. On an average, some 1,000 Americans died every year during the Prohibition from the effects of drinking tainted liquor.”

In Pakistan, poverty contributed to an increasing number of such tragedies.

“Before, more people could afford to buy Pakistani or Indian liquor from licenced wine shops,” said Mr Khan. Now, you have crushing poverty and stress combined with the easy availability of cheap, home brewed liquor.”

Minority communities, who are exempt from Prohibition, are particularly vulnerable because they are among the most economically disadvantaged.

Tariq Maqbool, a male nurse who lives in Karachi’s Pehelwan Goth, a Pakhtun locality with about 250 Christian homes, estimates that at least 50pc of the Christians in that area who imbibe, drink ‘katchi sharab’. “There’s a licenced

wine shop nearby, but even the local alcohol available there is too expensive for most people in my community, especially around festival time when prices go up even more.

Who can beat Rs100 for a half-litre bottle of moonshine?”

Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s ongoing review of the punishment for drinking, Prohibition is here to stay. How much it contributes to deaths from tainted liquor is a moot point. After all, such tragedies even happen in India — and in far greater numbers — despite alcohol being legal in much of that country.

Poverty and corruption, however, are common to both. “If alcohol production is stringently monitored and licences are issued for sale of cheap liquor in areas with higher minority populations, the problem can be controlled,” said a senior police official.

One can’t help but wonder though if it’s even possible to close the spigot of tainted liquor. After all, it only puts at risk the lives of the poorest in society.

The writer is a member of staff.


The drink of death

The increasing demand of tharo has led manufacturers to add chemicals to hasten its preparation process. But without any checks on quality, the number of deaths are only rising

By Gobind Menghwar


Within minutes, 21-year-old Bilawal, the sole breadwinner of his six-member family, was reduced to a statistic: he joined the list of 21 people in a fortnight who perished due to consuming tharo — a locally-manufactured rum that turned toxic.

Bilawal belonged to the town of Nasarpur, some 50kms away from Hyderabad. He was merely sitting with friends after work to forget the day’s hardships. Later in the night, he first lost his eyesight. By the time he was taken to the district headquarters hospital in Tando Allahyar, he had already breathed his last.

“People bring this sort of patient only when the case turns critical,” said a doctor at the Tando Allahyar Civil Hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They prefer to go to quacks first as they fear any legal action or possible humiliation. If they would just bring patients in a little earlier, the number of causalities would reduce drastically.”

Tharo is a popular form of liquor in interior Sindh as it is very cheap and is easy to prepare. Predominantly made by women, tharo is usually prepped at home. A typical bottle of tharo would include gur (jaggery), bark of a kikar/babul tree (Acacia nilotica), dried orange peels, fertilisers, tranquilising pills and some other herbs. They are then cooked together in a clay pot over low heat. The mixture is then allowed to ferment for about seven to 10 days. The end product is referred to as tharo in the local lingo. A plastic bag containing 200ml of tharo is sold at a measly price of Rs150.

It isn’t just the toxicity of the ingredients that causes problems; the unhygienic manner in which this liquor is prepared causes innumerable intestinal and renal disorders. Many believe that timely media coverage of the crisis could have saved many lives. The argument often is that while deaths due to the consumption of toxic liquor have taken place across Hyderabad division, the issue only received widespread attention when two people died in the suburbs of Hyderabad.

In earlier times, tharo was prepared and consumed largely by the Kohli and Menghwars farming communities. Both belong to the Hindu minority in Sindh. It was such a part of the local culture that Hassan Dars, a leading Sindhi poet had penned a verse, the translation of which reads as, ‘As dusk falls, all the Kohlies open their pots and sip tharo in order to break the shackles of slavery tied to their necks.’ In present times, however, the increasing consumption of illegal liquor has proven to be catastrophic for the people of Southern Sindh, breaking up families by killing their young ones.

According to Nasir Nohrio, a reporter for a Sindhi-language news channel in Tando Allahyar, “This liquor turned fatal due to changes in its preparation process. Instead of letting the drink go through a week-long fermentation process, people now mix a chemical into the drink and get the final product in a day. This has given a boost to their business.”

Others believe that it is impure alcohol smuggled from sugar mills by their workers and sold to the people who are involved in the tharo-making business that has contributed to the recent rise in deaths. Jabran Leghari, a social activist who works for an NGO agrees with this explanation: “Raw alcohol obtained from sugar mills hastens the otherwise very slow liquor synthesis process. By mixing the alcohol it has now become a readily made product available in a desired quantity all the time.”

Although the police conducted a massive crackdown on tharo-making businesses, shutting down and dismantling makeshift industries where this toxic liquor was being prepared in Tando Allahyar, it has had little effect on the number of casualties which only seem to be rising by the day.

Meanwhile, an air of gloom has descended upon Nasrapur as it lost yet another member of its community to the perils of consuming toxic liquor. Bhemoon Kolhi, whose younger brother died from consuming poisonous liquor before he reached the hospital, laments that, “I was helpless both at stopping him from his addiction and telling the truth to the doctor.”

It is a tragic state of affairs indeed.


Battle of the brewers

Competition drives profit and deaths in Karachi’s tharra and kuppi sector

By Tahir Siddiqui


It is a cynical old game: destroy your competition to maximise profits and steal customers away. In Karachi and Hyderabad, 900 people have fallen prey to a dirty battle between brewers manufacturing tharra and kuppi.

“Why do most people die from consuming home-made liquor only on Eids and our major holidays?” rhetorically asks Mohammad Irfan*, a man who was once involved with the brewing and bootlegging business in Karachi.

“Such tactics are employed by competitors to damage one another’s business,” explains Irfan. “What typically happens in Karachi and Hyderabad is that one brewer will have the other’s brew spiked with something else, through an intermediary or by bribing the other’s staff. The liquor prepared thus becomes poisonous, and those consuming it unwittingly trade their lives for a shot of toxic liquor — whether tharra or kuppi.”

The difference between tharra and kuppi, explains Irfan, is significant. Tharra is transparent and is brewed in a drum; its ingredients include molasses, rotten dates, sub-standard seasonal fruit, and a very little quantity of methyl alcohol. Tharra contains methyl, which is typically used as fuel, and in industrial use, as an anti-freeze chemical in adhesives and paints. It is fatal when consumed in large quantities. Kuppi is red in colour, and made out of a medicinal substance known as ‘KL,’ which is brought to Sindh from Lahore by adding some barbiturates.

“Over the holidays, demand rises sharply — in turn, this means that bootleggers are brewing more liquor than they usually do,” says a former excise official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Tharra needs to be boiled for a couple of hours, to minimise the level of deadly methyl. Usually, about four per cent of methyl is added — this is a poisonous amount. Boiling reduces this to 2pc, thereby bringing it to a level that is safe for consumption. But because demand is high, not enough time is spent on the boiling process.”

It is widely believed that tharra occasionally turns toxic during the manufacturing process, largely due to lack of awareness and wrong techniques of distillation. Experts argue, however, that locally manufactured liquor turns poisonous when the quantity of the industrial methyl alcohol is incidentally or ignorantly increased.

“Tharra will hardly ever turn toxic if distilled properly, but consumers sometimes mix kuppi with tharra to intensify alcoholic strength. Unfortunately, the mixture often becomes poisonous,” argues Irfan.

Tharra and kuppi have no official sanction as per the law; much of the illegal brewing and bootlegging business in Karachi is alleged to be running in cahoots with police officials. Those in the sector claim that a constable known as Shahji patronises many of these illegal businesses. As a result, not only is no action ever taken against the manufacturers and sellers of home-brewed liquor, but many of them have also become notorious criminals.

Restrictions on the manufacture and consumption of liquor were introduced and enforced in Pakistan by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a few weeks before he was removed as prime minister in 1977. The decision has since been viewed as political rather than as moral in nature. In almost all cultures of the subcontinent, alcohol has been used for recreational and medicinal purposes as well as religious rites. Yet the ban was slapped at the time in a final bid to appease the religious right.

Nonetheless, a ban on liquor could not save Bhutto from being toppled and sent to the gallows. But as a consequence of the ban, while major official breweries were forced to scale down their production, it ultimately also gave rise to the manufacture and consumption of illegal alcoholic beverages across the country. Many of these illegal businesses that mushroomed were home-based and focussed on a largely low income consumer base. The end result: many people lose lives every year due to consumption.

The gravity of the situation compelled a civil rights activist to move the Sindh High Court (SHC) against the production and consumption of home-made liquor. In response, Chief Justice Maqbool Baqar directed provincial authorities including the excise police, the home department, and the health department to furnish their probe into the deaths of over 70 people who died in Karachi and Hyderabad due to moonshine consumption in the first week of the October, 2014.

The petitioner, Rana Faizul Hasan, had argued that over 900 people have been killed due to toxic liquor consumption in the two cities over the past five years. However, the provincial government seems to be indifferent as concrete steps have yet to be taken to contain the menace. He claimed in his plea that over 27 bootlegger dens were operating within the jurisdictions of 16 police stations, in connivance with provincial authorities.

Hasan further contended that moonshine was being brewed in Mehmoodabad, Chanesar Goth, Aasu Goth, Malir Bakra Piri, Quaidabad, Rehri Goth, Ibrahim Hyderi, Landhi, Sharafi Goth, Pak Colony, Manghopir, Liaquatabad and Lyari.

According to Dr Seemin Jamali, the director of the emergency and accident department of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC), recent victims of poisonous liquor died of respiratory paralyses, as a depression in the respiratory centre of the brain occurs once the victim’s liver stops absorbing toxicity. She said such deaths often occur during holidays, adding that a few years ago, about 50 people comprising mostly young men died after consuming toxic liquor in the city.

Meanwhile, police officials argue that while higher income groups can afford imported liquor at heavily inflated prices, those belonging to the low-income strata have no option but to resort to home-brews. “It is practically impossible to enforce a complete ban on it,” said an official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Karachi police chief Ghulam Qadir Thebo shifted the blame to the excise police, arguing that unchecked proliferation of tharra and kuppi was the “failure of the excise department.” He added that since such liquor is being prepared in homes, it is not easy to detect where they are being manufactured.

Excise officials could not be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts.

But perhaps, a complete prohibition on alcohol through the use of force has always met failure. In a society where implementation of law is very weak and an unholy nexus exists between the authorities (police, excise, politicians) and the bootleggers, containing such a situation necessitates a more pragmatic approach. This could be done, perhaps, by regulating an already existing industry so that revenue can be channelised into the national and provincial exchequer. A quality control mechanism could then also be evolved to check whether poisonous liquor is being distributed in the market.

Renowned reformist Martin Luther King once presented quite an apt argument: “Wine and women bring many a man to misery and make a fool of him. This does not mean you pour out all the wine and kill all the women!”

*Name changed to protect privacy and identity

The writer is a member of staff. He can be reached at gisberian@yahoo.com


Brown-bagging in Lahore

Unlike Karachi, where wine shops are common, the provincial capital of Punjab relies on bootlegging for the distribution of alcohol

By Intikhab Hanif


There is an unsettling disquiet over the sale of alcohol in Lahore: a senior excise department officer suddenly stopped talking under the pretext of an important meeting; a retired junior officer of the department answered only two questions and that too briefly, on the pretext of a severe stomach pain; a bootlegger referred begged, “hamarey pait per laat na marain” (please do not destroy our livelihood); and a consumer requested not to destroy the supply line by writing on the subject.

Something doesn’t smell right.

The issue at hand was why and how liquor is easily available in Lahore, and why no complaints are lodged or action taken against those who adulterate alcohol with impunity. Everyone admits to the existence of alcohol in the market, but nobody likes to be named since alcohol has no social, legal or religious acceptability in Lahore. There is no public mention of the sale or purchase of liquor in Lahore either.

In truth, the sale of alcohol is perhaps the largest unwritten and unregulated trade in Lahore, which generates huge sums for sellers, bootleggers, and law enforcement officials who are supposed to ensure its prohibition.

The story is simple.

Local brewery companies legally produce liquor, which is officially meant for consumption by non-Muslim residents and foreigners. In Lahore, supplies are sent to four hotels and those deemed eligible to consume. Those allowed to drink get a permit from the excise department, which allows them a fixed quota that they can purchase. These permits are issued on annual basis for permanent residents and temporary basis for foreign visitors.

But the majority of local permit holders prefer to sell their stock to known poor or lower middle-class clientele. Their dens are known and they operate within a locality.

Their sales, however, tend to outnumber their permitted quota: there is a culture of under-the-table deals in hotels as well as the production of counterfeit alcohol that are packaged in original bottles. The supply-demand mechanism is safe both for the sellers and consumers as it maintains secrecy and privacy. Any extra charges by a hotel or a supplier are considered as a just price for safe delivery.

Still there are daring consumers who directly approach the source, notwithstanding the risk of being caught by the hovering law enforcement officials. Those who know the order of the day remain unscathed. Those few who don’t are booked and humiliated.

And then there are the bootleggers, who provide a service of delivering to your doorstep but only if you are a connoisseur of imported liquor. In this scenario, consumers do not have to take any risk of carrying a liquor bottle. It is supplied wherever demanded, and the price is usually not negotiated.

The Pappar Mandi of Lohari and Shahalam Gates provides industrial rectified spirit as well as stickers of all local and foreign brands. Water is added to the spirit and essences of all such brands produce the original smell. Sealing machines are not too difficult to buy from Lahore and from Rawalpindi either.

What matters in such cases is the authenticity and reliability of the bootlegger. Bootleggers, women and men included, are referred to new clientele by an acquaintance. Consumers tend to run background checks through mutual connections, while bootleggers too assess whether a client is safe to deal with.

Once the buyers are satisfied by the quality and price of alcohol supplied, and bootleggers are convinced that the new client is harmless, everything from any corner of the world is supplied and consumed. Since the dealings are kept secret there is no price regulation or quality control — the bootlegger’s premium on top of the base price is central to keeping this relationship intact. Consumers get whatever the supplier provides them with, at whatever the rate the bootlegger determines.

Despite the widespread availability of local and foreign alcohol, there is no dearth of adulterated and counterfeit liquor in Lahore either, thanks to the easy access to material used for the purpose.

Used original liquor bottles are available in junk markets around the Walled City. The Pappar Mandi of Lohari and Shahalam Gates provides industrial rectified spirit as well as stickers of all local and foreign brands. Water is added to the spirit and essences of all such brands produce the original smell. Sealing machines are not too difficult to buy from Lahore and from Rawalpindi either.

With packaging as neat as the branded liquor, it is easy to mistake counterfeit liquor for genuine one. Forgery is only detected after consuming it. Connoisseurs of spirits believe that a glint in the liquor establishes its originality, but manufacturers of counterfeits provide this glint by adding a pinch of glycerine to their solution.

The adulteration is delicate and seldom kills the consumer. Any illness contracted as a result of drinking counterfeit liquor therefore remains a secret since the victim never likes to be known as someone who drinks. Those who die, which is rare in Lahore, are not sympathised with and their relatives regret the revelation of their lifetime secret.

The excise department says that the sale of Pakistani liquor is regulated; the department’s documents suggest the revenue target for the year 20013-14 through duty on local liquor was Rs150 million. This year, the same figure is Rs1,782million. But these facts and figures are not given prominence anywhere in order to avoid strong opposition from the religious right.

Law enforcement officials say the trade is buried under the thick blanket of religious or societal compulsions. It is black and therefore there is no check on what is happening in the dark. The sellers and the consumers are in agreement and they don’t mind if they have to buy the regulators. The bond between the three is strong and there are no complaints.

But those in the business say foreign liquor is smuggled into Lahore from India, by air and from Karachi. The availability supports this claim though there is no evidence on paper. There are no official estimates of the money that goes to the smugglers, those running under-the-table businesses, or even the bootleggers. Unofficially, this figure is believed to be in billions of rupees, in addition to the huge sums minted through adulterated liquor.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 16th, 2014