By Arun Pratap Singh
DEHRADUN, 12 Feb: Congress members continued their protest against “government apathy” at the large number of deaths due to poisonous hooch consumption on the second day of the budget session, here, today. Alleging that the government was insensitive on the issue and had not shown the will to act tough against the guilty, Congress members demanded higher compensation for the dependants of those who died after consuming illicit liquor in Balupur and other villages near Roorkee. Not satisfied with the government’s response to the questions raised by them, they staged a walkout from the House. They also boycotted the post lunch sitting of the House. They also tried to give a caste angle to the incident since most of those who died were from the SC category.
As soon as the House assembled today for the second day of the budget session, Congress members rushed to the Well of the House and started shouting slogans against the government. They were also demanding the resignation of Excise Minister Prakash Pant and Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat. Leader of the Opposition Indira Hridayesh demanded suspension of all work and immediate discussion under Rule 310 as the matter was of urgent public importance. Speaker Prem Chand Aggarwal urged the Congress members to first let the Question Hour be over. However, the Congress members did not budge and continued to demand immediate discussion on the issue.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Prakash Pant urged the Opposition to let him speak and inform the House about the steps taken by the government. However, Congress members demanded that they be allowed to speak first and then the Minister could respond to their questions. They demanded suspension of Question Hour. Consequently, Speaker Prem Chand Aggarwal suspended Question Hour and agreed to hear the members on the admissibility of the issue under Rule 310.
Raising the issue, Leader of the Opposition Indira Hridayesh alleged that the government was totally insensitive towards such an issue of grave concern. She claimed that despite a large number of deaths due to hooch consumption in villages near Roorkee, no senior officer or any minister had visited the site of the incident to console the grieving families. She added that the affected families mostly belonged to the Scheduled Caste category and were very poor. They did not even have any arrangement to obtain food. She also questioned the action taken by the government thus far and said that it was not enough to suspend a few lower ranked officials and some police officers. Such an action was a mere formality and a face saving measure. The Excise Department was not doing its duty and, because of corruption in the department, such a tragedy could occur. She demanded a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the dependants of those who died and Rs 5 lakhs for those who had taken ill after consumption of the hooch.
Bhagwanpur MLA Mamata Rakesh said that she visited the villages affected by the incident and they did not even have money for food and claimed that it was wrong to say that the liquor had been served at a Tehrvi ceremony. The family concerned was very poor and did not have money to even eat and serve food on the Tehrvi and was not in a position to serve liquor. She accused the administration of being insensitive and doing nothing for the welfare of the affected families. She also claimed that Rs 50,000 compensation announced by the government for those who had fallen ill was not enough since they were suffering from kidney ailments and many had become blind. Such a meagre compensation was not going to help them in any way. She demanded jobs for the dependants of the deceased and affected persons.
Congress member and PCC Chief Pritam Singh said there was a total collapse of administration in this case. Even though the incident had occurred on 7 February, the government came to know of it on the next day. The Government could not act in time and it was on 11 February that the Chief Minister announced formation of an SIT to inquire into the incident. Singh further alleged that he visited Roorkee Hospital after the incident and it was only after two hours of waiting that the District Magistrate and SSP came to the Hospital. He himself witnessed affected families transporting the dead bodies of the victims on rickshaws but there was no one to help them. He also demanded Rs 10 lakh be given to dependants of each person who died as compensation.
He charged the government of being totally insensitive about the incident and claimed that information had been given regularly by the local persons about trade of illicit liquor in the area but the excise officials and the local police failed to take action on time, otherwise the tragedy could have been avoided. He also questioned the amount of Rs 2 lakhs as compensation and said that it was totally inadequate. He added that even the Rs 50,000 compensation being paid to those who had fallen ill was inadequate. The victims were very poor and belonged to SC communities. He also pointed out that the excise officials had been suspended but actually they did not have resources to carry out searches and destroy the illegal hooch distilleries.
Govind Singh Kunjwal claimed that no one from the government had visited the affected village to console the affected families and no action had been taken by the government that could have been exemplary. He sought to blame the government for the incident and even targeted the CM and the Excise Minister, levelling charges that had to be expunged from the proceedings of the House after Excise Minister Prakash Pant rose from his seat immediately and strongly objected to the charge.
Karan Mahra questioned the action only against the lower level officials. He added that the government had taken no action against the District Excise Officer even when he had earlier been suspended for irregularities but posted again in Haridwar. He alleged that none from the government or the ruling party had visited the site of the incident. Hearing this, Roorkee MLA Pradeep Batra immediately rose and objected to the allegation. He claimed that he was the first one to visit the site and had visited all the hospitals too. Urban Development Minister Madan Kaushik also stated that he had visited the site and the hospitals. Jhabrera MLA Deshraj Karnwal also claimed that he too had visited the site. To this, Mahra retorted that despite their visit, they could not make any difference in the situation. He demanded the immediate resignation of CM Trivendra Singh Rawat and Excise Minister Prakash Pant over the issue.
Harish Dhami alleged that the government was deliberately ignoring the illicit trade in liquor and was even promoting smuggling of liquor. He further claimed that even legal liquor vends in his constituencies were selling illicit liquor. Raids and recovery of illicit liquor from time to time were merely symbolic and not carried out with any sincerity. He too demanded the CM’s and Excise Minister’s resignation. Manoj Rawat too blamed the government for being insensitive and reminded the government that the then Railway Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, had resigned taking moral responsibility for a rail accident and his resignation had been accepted by the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru. He demanded that the CM and the Excise Minister resign taking moral responsibility of the incident. Others who also demanded resignations from the CM and the Minister included Rajkumar, Adesh Chauhan and Furqan Ahmed.
Responding to the debate on admissibility of the issue under Rule 310, Excise Minister Prakash Pant refuted the allegation that the government had been insensitive on the issue. He claimed that as soon as the government came to know of the incident, senior police officials and excise officials were rushed to the spot. IG, Garhwal, Ajay Rautela camped there and oversaw the rescue and search operations personally. Pant added that 13 officials from the Excise Department, of which 7 were from the Enforcement Section, had been suspended. A show cause notice had been served to a senior state level officer and the District Excise Officer, too. If their response was not found satisfactory, action would be taken against them too.
He further claimed that the government was determined to root out the illicit liquor trade. He admitted that the existing Excise Act had certain weaknesses and many of the offences were of easily bailable nature. The government would soon introduce an amendment to the Excise Act and hold making and trading of illicit a non-bailable offence and also incorporate harder punishment for the offence. He said that it was a social malaise and this had to be tackled only with the support of all.
After the response of the government, Speaker Prem Chand Aggarwal directed the government to ensure strict punishment for the guilty and also announced formation of a committee of members to look into the incident and suggest remedies and make recommendations regarding the compensation. He later declared the issue to be inadmissible under Rule 310.
Not satisfied with the response of Excise Minister Prakash Pant and the Speaker’s announcements, Congress members staged a walkout from the House and sat on dharna outside.