Tamil Nadu: Nexus of bootlegger, corrupt cops led to Kallakurichi tragedy

The News Minute pieces together how Govindaraj built his liquor business with help from corrupt law enforcers.

WrittenBy:Shabbir Ahmed
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The tragedy that took more than 50 lives at Kallakurichi  34 of them in Karunapuram, a Dalit colony located in the heart of the town alone  has exposed a lethal nexus between a local bootlegger and law enforcement, which had allowed the sale of illicit liquor to thrive unchecked and in full public view. In a ground investigation, The News Minute pieced together the story of how the accused – Govindaraj alias Kannukutty  almost single-handedly built a small-scale liquor business of sorts based out of Karunapuram, with the round-the-clock sale of cheap methanol-laced arrack packets and the silent and methodical complicity of the police.

People in Karunapuram and other areas often preferred Kannukutty’s illicit drink packets to the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC)’s authorised liquor, primarily due to its cheap prices and 24/7 availability. His business began as early as 3 am and was often the first stop for those who left for work early in the morning. 

Of the 6,168 people who reside in Karunapuram, with 1500 households, a majority are daily wage workers from economically and socially weaker backgrounds. On an average, they earn around Rs 300 to 500 a day. “So to the people here, Kannukutty’s packet arrack that costs Rs 60-70 is preferable to the liquor sold in TASMAC shops, which costs anywhere between Rs 135-175,” Karunapuram resident Chinnarasu told The News Minute.

The packets of arrack sold by Kannukutty and family.

Besides, there are only two TASMAC shops in the area, both of which are located more than a kilometre away. “It would also be 12 pm by the time the TASMAC shops are open, and they would close by 10 pm. So those who go for daily wage work tend to arrive at Kannukutty’s house first thing in the morning, around 4am, before they start work,” said Chinnarasu. 

The methanol kick 

Apparently, there is also a kick to Kannukutty’s methanol-laced liquor that the TASMAC bottles won’t provide. This is due to the addition of methyl alcohol or methanol, which is commonly used for industrial purposes as a solvent and antifreeze, to increase its alcohol content. Methanol is severely toxic to humans, and the ingestion of up to 10 ml can lead to blindness. Consuming 30ml or more is usually fatal. 

Methanol has often been named the fatal ingredient behind several of the alcohol poisoning tragedies reported in India; and often, the reason such harmful substances make their way into illegally brewed alcoholic drinks is the huge unfulfilled demand for liquor, which in turn drives supply underground into an unregulated industry. The legal supply of the Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL) comes at a higher price range, while in contrast, the illegal liquor pouches are sold for much lower prices. 

The danger with illegally produced liquor is that typically, the consumer remains unaware of the substances that have been used to make it, or the level of alcohol present in it.

The area where methanol was mixed.

Tamil Nadu specifically has had a complicated history with the prohibition of local manufacture of alcohol, with the ban first being imposed in the region in 1937, after the Congress won with a majority in the Madras Presidency. The state has since witnessed the revoking of the ban and repeated prohibitions several times, with an array of politicians backing it at one point or another. 

Notably in 1984, methanol was removed from the purview of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act due to its wide use in industries. The state then saw the prohibition of the sale of arrack and toddy and its subsequent revival once again, after which a new government led by J Jayalalithaa imposed another ban in 1991. In 2002, methanol was brought under the Prohibition Act again.

The methanol-laced arrack sold by Kannukutty, which led to the recent tragedy in Karunapuram, had come from illicit liquor brewers from Puducherry through Cuddalore. “In this specific case, the supplies have entered Tamil Nadu through Puducherry,” police sources said. The police have arrested Chinnadurai in Kadampuliyur in Cuddalore district, who allegedly sold Kannukutty the toxic alcohol. 

Typically, the practice in the trade is that every litre of methanol-laced arrack will be diluted with water to reduce its potency. But in this case, it is not yet clear what went wrong with this dilution process, or if it took place at all. The CB-CID team is also investigating the source of the brew and supply of methanol. 

During the police investigation, Kannukutty and Chinnadurai have been identified as ‘sellers’ in the illicit liquor chain and during the CB-CID questioning on how Kannukutty procured methanol-laced arrack, Chinnadurai has named two other people named Joseph and Madesh, who are suspected to be the men who procured methanol and sold it to their regular clients. 

The epicentre of illicit liquor 

Kalvarayan Malai, located 55 kilometres away from Kallakurichi was traditionally known as a hotbed for brewing illicit liquor which is called ‘Nattu sarakku’ in local parlance. According to the locals, what started as a means to prepare country liquor for themselves, later became a ‘notorious business model’ encouraged by the local politicians and the police. 

For years the supply of locally brewed alcohol using ingredients Kadukai (Myrobalan), Veppam Pattai (Dried neem bark), Banana, grapes, fruits that are rotten, urea and other items. The locals call the entire process as ‘oural’ and it is a common practice in hill areas like Kalvarayan Malai, Vellimalai, and Serapattu hills which are located in Kallakurichi. Illicit liquor from Kalvarayan Malai is supplied to Kallakurichi, Villupuram and Salem districts. 

Sources say the illicit liquor mafia is a well-oiled machinery which operates with the help of local politicians and police. “Over the years the brewing of illegal alcohol has been regularised in such a way that it is being carried out using the ‘auction route’. Anyone who wants to brew alcohol in the hills will have to deposit Rs 40,000 - 50,000 as village fund and village leaders will provide cover and ensure no one raises objection,” the source added. 

Kannukutty, who has been operating his illegal liquor business for 25 years started off by selling locally brewed liquor and later switched to selling smuggled liquor bottles from Pondicherry, rectified spirit (RS) and methanol-laced arrack sachets. In 2019, after Kallakurichi was declared as a separate district, Kannukutty became one of the leading illicit liquor suppliers for Kallakurichi town and nearby areas such as Seshamudram, Siruvangur, Sankarapuram, Madhavacheri, Mudiyanur and other areas. 

The rise of Kannukutty

Kannukutty’s own illicit trade wasn’t always this blatant, nor was it laced with methanol in his initial days.

According to police sources, back in the day, Kannukutty used to get his supplies from the hill areas, known for its locally brewed alcohol which is distributed to several parts of northern Tamil Nadu. “Consuming that alcohol generally does not create problems, so people did not care much about the illegality of his trade,” they said.

After buying the brew from the Kalvarayan Hills, located about 55 km away from Kallakurichi, Kannukutty used to dilute it with water on the outskirts of the area before selling it in plastic pouches, said Chinnarasu. “For more than 10 years, Kannukutty had sold his illicit liquor outside Karunapuram. It was after the demand for his liquor shot up in the past few years that he began to sell directly at his house, right in the middle of the village. Even the mixing happens inside the house that is owned by his brother Damadoran,” he said.

A local NGO worker who wished to be anonymous told The News Minute that for the past few years Kannukutty has stopped taking regular supplies from Kalvarayan hills and instead was sourcing it from Cuddalore as he has his relatives there. Kannukutty has been procuring Rectified Spirit (RS) from Pondicherry with the help of his relatives in Cuddalore. “Kannukutty’s sister-in-law is from Thambipettai in Cuddalore and if there is any trouble for Kannukutty or any of his family members, they seek refuge in Thambipettai, which is like a second home for them. If there is any shortage of supplies from Cuddalore, Kannukutty will manage by procuring alcohol from the hill areas,” he said. 

On any given day at least 100 to 150 people from both inside and outside Karunapuram would be buying liquor. During emergencies, Kannukutty found ways to continue sales even when he was told to shut shop, added the resident. “When the police carry out raids and the family has to close down the business at their house, they begin the home delivery of the illicit liquor pouches on bikes. It’s just like any other delivery service. You can call them and place the order, and the liquor will be delivered to your doorstep.” 

Chinnarasu said that Kannakutty used to engage in the trade with impunity, due to the strong backing of the police and other local officials. “Everyone, including government officials, were aware that he was selling illicit liquor. But those who complained against him were threatened, and it was often the police themselves who would give away the number of the complainants to him. With the help of the TrueCaller app, Kannukutty would then find out the names of the complainants, call and threaten them.” 

Kannukutty was in the business with his wife Vijaya (42) and his brother Damodaran (42), both of whom were also arrested in connection with the Kallakurichi illicit liquor deaths. Damodaran, who has a physical disability, used to primarily handle the sales at the house, while Kannukutty dealt with almost everything else including procurement and keeping the police in good humour.

Kannukutty, Vijaya and Damodaran.

Residents said the family has stayed in the area for as long as they can remember, and that Kannukutty has been involved in this business for nearly 25 years now. They recalled his initial days as a small-time seller who had frequent run-ins with the government’s Prohibition Enforcement Wing. The police arrested him time and again, after which he came out on bail and got back to work right away. In 2018, Kannukutty was also detained under the Goondas Act. 

At present, there are around 22 cases connected to prohibition offences registered against Kannukutty.

Corruption and impunity

A revenue official told The News Minute that Kannukutty can often be spotted on the premises of the local police station. “Even though the police are well aware that he is actively selling illicit liquor in the area, his relationship with the police is such that nobody questioned him or dared to take any action against him. He had an understanding with the police,” said the official.

As per sources in the revenue department, there is a weekly package system through which bribes are given to the police, particularly with regard to prohibition cases. “Every week, a set amount of money is supposed to reach the local police station. The officials with the Prohibition Enforcement Wing will get their cut separately. If this is done routinely, then you need to do one more thing. The sellers have to give 2 or 3 names to the police, on whom a case will be booked for running illegal liquor distilling or selling. This is done so that the police will have something to show in their monthly report and the real people are never implicated. The police are required to file prohibition cases every month, so they come to an understanding with the bootleggers and record one or two seizures of liquor,” a source said.

The individual bribe amounts from bootleggers typically depend on the demand and supply in an area, sources added. “For example in Karunapuram, Kannukutty used to give Rs 1,000-1,500 rupees every week to the inspector. If and when the police personnel require money, they will walk into his house, get their cut, and leave. That’s how he has been allowed to continue his business.”

In turn, the police would alert Kannukutty if a raid was about to happen, or if the liquor sale had to be stopped for a specific period.

Chinnarasu recalled that Kannukutty was asked to stop sales after the illicit liquor tragedy that happened last year in the Villupuram and Chengalpattu districts, which had led to the death of at least 22 people. “The police had shut down his business for a month, and there was no activity. They started selling arrack again after that,” he said.

But this is a rare event, Chinnarasu added, pointing out that Kannukutty has rarely had to fully shut shop because the police have never launched a proper crackdown on him. “The business happens openly here. Once in a month, the police will visit his house and a raid will happen for the sake of display. The family will hide the stuff when this happens, and business will continue as usual once the officials are gone,” he explained.

A Revenue Department official told The News Minute that Kannukutty’s influence with law enforcement extended well beyond impunity in his liquor trade. This became obvious when the administration ended up altering a proposed road route in Karunapuram to accommodate his house, which is in fact located on a government poramboke land. “The administration was supposed to lay a road in the area five years ago, and Kannukutty’s house fell bang in the middle of the proposed route. But he refused to give up the land, and because of his influence, the officials ended up changing the proposed route to avoid his house, despite it being built on government land,” the official said.

Kannukutty’s house and the altered road route.

Besides, as a man who frequently donates to village events and helps his neighbours out in case of money issues, Kannukutti also enjoys a certain amount of respect and popularity among the people in the area. “If the people in the village have monetary needs, it is usually Kannukutty who comes forward to help. So even if they do not appreciate his illicit liquor trade, people generally hesitate to publicly take him on. That’s how he has evaded people’s anger so far,” a resident told The News Minute

The recent tragedy, however, has changed things. As residents witness deaths all around, with several children left bereaved after losing both their parents, rage against Kannukutty seems to have built up to a crescendo.

‘It’s livelihood’

Vellaiyan, Kannukutty’s father’s brother, told The News Minute that liquor trade is the only work Kannukutty knew how to do. “He is an illiterate man,” said the 70-year-old. “He has also been arrested a few times, everybody in this area knows about this.”

According to Vellaiyan, Kannukutty has been buying liquor from the Vellimalai, Serapattu hills, Kalvarayan hills area near Kallakurichi. “Earlier he used to sell liquor pouches for just about Rs 15 to 25. After demand shot up, he raised the price to Rs 60.” When asked about methanol, Vellaiyan says he is unaware about what has happened now. 

Kannukutty and his family’s livelihood is entirely dependent on his business, he further stated, adding that any profit he earned was spent paying bribes and meeting the needs at home. “You can do this business only by paying bribes to the police, and that’s what they did. When the police requested Kannukutty not to sell illicit liquor for a month, he would adhere to it,” he said.

Jyothi, Kannukutty’s mother, said her son was left incapable of engaging in manual labour about 25 years ago when he had to undergo an open heart surgery. “That’s why my son started selling liquor,” she said. 

She added that people from all backgrounds bought liquor from him, and that so far nothing has happened to any of them. “I know people are now blaming him for these deaths. But my son had no idea that the liquor was poisoned. He bought that liquor six days ago directly from the people who were brewing it. The liquor was stored in cans, and Kannukutty made the complete payment and bought around 10-15 litres. It’s not him who brewed the liquor, he just brought it here to sell it.” 

Jyoti believes that the local residents who are speaking out against Kannukutty are doing so out of jealousy. “They consumed the alcohol sold by him all these years, and now they are blaming him. The women here are also abusing him,” she said.

After the tragedy happened, the police took Jyoti to a safe house. “They were afraid that the people would attack me. So they kept me in a safe place for three days and gave me food and tea.” 

Police failure 

No lessons seem to have been learnt from the May 2023 hooch tragedy that claimed 23 lives in Chengalpattu and Villupuram districts. The Kallakurichi incident shares many similarities with the twin hooch tragedy, including the failure of the police machinery. 

The Prohibition Enforcement Wing’s (PEW) sole objective is to eradicate illicit liquor. The special wing is headed by an Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) and includes a Central Intelligence Unit (CIU) led by a Superintendent of Police (SP).

A former police officer told The News Minute that the PEW does not have the required manpower to conduct raids or make arrests, but it has all the resources to monitor, gather intelligence and send reports. “As a formality, the reports are sent to the district SP and other officials. However, even if those inputs are reliable, there is hardly any action. When TASMAC was launched, the police were tasked with curbing illegal liquor and we were successful in South Tamil Nadu. But northern and western parts of Tamil Nadu are challenging. No sale of illicit liquor can happen without the patronage of the police,” the officer said. 

As of June 22, at least 54 people have died in the Kallakurichi liquor tragedy.

This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM subscriber here.

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Also see
article imageTamil Nadu hooch deaths: In grief-stricken village, anger against official ‘apathy’
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