32 orphans of Assam hooch tragedy stare at an uncertain future

The Asian Age.  | manoj anand

India, All India

27 people, 19 from Golaghat and eight from Jorhat, have so far been held for illicit liquor trade ran under protection from netas, officials.

An official of Assam excise department destroys an illicit liquor unit in Guwahati.

Guwahati: The Assam hooch tragedy, which has claimed 155 lives in Upper Assam’s Golaghat and Jorhat districts, has also left at least 32 children orphaned so far. With no one to look after them, the government agencies are trying to firm up plans to shift them to relatives’ homes or government-run shelters.

Informing that child welfare committee (CWC) has identified 32 children who lost both their parents to the tragedy, child rights activists are of view that the number is likely to rise before the survey is completed.

The police has arrested 27 people — 19 from Golaghat and eight from Jorhat — till now for involvement in illicit liquor trade. Police and excise department officials have been destroying large amounts of illicit liquor seized.

If security agencies are to be believed there is a nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and illicit liquor traders that is patronising the hooch syndicate.

Through its survey, which began on Monday, the CWC is trying to identify the total number of children who have been orphaned by the tragedy as well as arrange for their rehabilitation and protection.

According to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, the CWC is responsible of looking into cases of children who are in need of basic care and protection.

 CWC chairperson of the Golaghat district Lukumoni Goswami said that the worst affected by the crisis is the Halmira tea estate in Golaghat, where over 100 people have lost their lives after drinking spurious liquor and at least 30 children have been  orphaned.

“During the ongoing survey, we have identified 30 children, in the age group of two to 16, who have lost both their parents. So far, two children — a girl and her brother — have been rehabilitated to a children’s home in Bokakhat,” she said, adding that in most  cases relatives of the orphaned children have come forward to take the responsibility of children and are refusing to hand them over to the authorities. In some cases, local residents of the area have also come forward an sought custody of children who lost their parents.

However, officials also suspect that many of these relatives and local residents may have been motivated by the state government’s decision to pay a compensation of `2 lakh to the kin of the deceased. “In many cases, locals and distant relatives have also shown up. But we are fearing that they may be refusing to hand over the children to the CWC just because the state government has announced the decision to offer an ex-gratia to the kin of the deceased,” an official said.

The CWC chairperson, however, said that they are taking some proactive measures to ensure that the children are looked after well. “To avoid a situation where relatives or local residents may stake claim to the compensation amount, we have decided to open bank accounts in the names of the orphaned children. This will ensure that the money is not misused. Also, we are trying to come up with strategies to deal with cases where the orphans themselves don’t want to go a children’s home,” she added.

A similar survey to identify the orphaned children has started in Jorhat district where CWC officials have been able to identify two orphans so far.

The Assam hooch tragedy is not something new that the country has seen. Similar tragedies have struck parts of the country from time to time.

In 2009, the Gujarat saw the death of around 136 people in the Ahmedabad, after they consumped hooch. In this tragedy, more than 6,000 people were booked for violating norms of prohibition in the state.

The Sangrampur district of West Bengal in 2012 resulted in the  death of 172 people. Most of the people who lost their lives were labourers, rickshaw pullers and hawkers.

In 2015, 102 people died at a slum in Mumbai after consuming poisonous alcohol.

In 2016, people in Gopalganj district of Bihar witnessed the death of 13 people in 2016.

In February this year,  at least 97 people lost their lives in the twin hooch tragedies in Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Uttarakhand.