Ground report: Residents point to police complicity in Villupuram liquor tragedy

Ekkiyarkuppam, a small fishing hamlet in Villupuram, has turned into a graveyard over the past few days, as 10 of the village’s residents lost their lives to spurious liquor since Monday, May 15.
Relatives mourn the death of a victim in Ekkiyarkuppam.
Relatives mourn the death of a victim in Ekkiyarkuppam.
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In a horrific tragedy, 22 persons lost their lives after consuming spurious liquor in Villupuram and Chengalpattu districts of Tamil Nadu. Ekkiyarkuppam, a small fishing hamlet in Villupuram, has turned into a graveyard over the past few days, as 10 of the village’s residents lost their lives to spurious liquor since Monday, May 15. When TNM visited the village on Tuesday, at least one family on each street was mourning the death of a loved one. More than 100 police officials were posted at the village to curb potential public outbursts. Angered by the seemingly endless funeral processions, residents are demanding answers from the police and the government.

According to residents, the sale of spurious liquor is rampant in Villupuram, Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, and other areas of Tamil Nadu. They say that at least 12 persons conduct spurious liquor sales in Villupuram’s Marakkanam taluk. “The police are aware of the businesses. However, no action is taken against them as they enjoy political patronage. They are either members of political parties or are backed by strong caste groups,” a resident said.

How the tragedy unfolded

While initial reports suggested that the deaths were caused by the consumption of spurious liquor, the police later said that the fatalities were due to the presence of methanol in the spurious alcohol consumed. Methanol, a potent substance, is a key ingredient used in illicit brewing and can lead to serious illness and death. Forensic investigation found the presence of methanol in all the victims from Villupuram and Chengalpattu. 

A chemical engineer called Ilaya Nambi, who worked for a private company in Chennai’s Vanagaram, allegedly sold industrial methanol to Ezhumalai, an agent in Puducherry. The Tamil Nadu- Puducherry border is prone to incidents of spurious liquor smuggling. According to the police statement, it was Ezhumalai who distributed spurious liquor mixed with methanol in the villages. While Ilaya Nambi was arrested on May 16, Ezhumalai was nabbed on May 17.

The police said that the methanol-mixed liquor was sold in Chengalpattu and Villupuram by Amaran, a liquor salesman from Chengalpattu’s Odiyur. Amaran, who has been arrested, told the police that he purchased it from Muthu, who had in turn procured the liquor from Ezhumalai. Muthu has not been arrested yet. 

Spurious liquor also entered Chithamur village in Kancheepuram district through D Ammavasai, brother of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) councillor Nagappan. Ammavasai reportedly consumed the spurious alcohol himself and is undergoing treatment. The police said that Ammavasai had also purchased spurious liquor from Ezhumalai. 

However, Ekkiyarkuppam residents believe that the police also played a part in the making of the tragedy. They alleged that spurious liquor that had been seized in November 2022 was released by the police themselves to the illicit brewers, who then allegedly mixed methanol to the old liquor to increase potency. They said that it was this spurious liquor that was sold at discounted prices over the past weekend.

Madhivanan, a resident, said, “We want to present this to the politicians visiting the village, but the ministers aren’t addressing our issues.” The residents asked why authorities never took cognizance of the illegal production and sale of spurious liquor until the tragedy struck. They alleged that it was widely known that it has been prevalent in the neighbouring Marakkanam taluk for several years now.

In addition to Ilaya Nambi and Amaran, the police have also arrested Vijaykumar, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary who the party claims was suspended a few days before the tragedy for unrelated reasons. The police have not revealed the nature of his involvement.  

Reports suggest that the police suspect the involvement of other political party functionaries, including those from DMK and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). A statement issued by the state Director General of Police Sylendra Babu on Monday had said that 1,558 persons were arrested and 1,842 cases registered in connection with spurious liquor trade.

Even though the residents of Ekkiyarkuppam have named three persons –  Ganapathy, Nagarajan, and Arumugam – who allegedly sold spurious liquor to the villagers and also accused two local politicians – of their involvement in the sale, the police’s statement did not contain their names.

Spurious liquor sold at discounted prices

Several village residents prefer consuming spurious liquor over buying liquor from the state-run Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation outlets, as the former is considerably cheap. They told TNM that more than 30 villagers purchased and consumed spurious liquor sold at discounted prices near Marakkanam beach on Saturday and Sunday, May 13 and 14. Sivakumar, a resident, said that country liquor sales have been prevalent for many years. “Usually, one packet is sold for Rs 30. But this time, if we purchased four, one was offered for free. The word spread on Saturday and many people from the village went to buy it and eventually consumed it,” he added. 

Many who consumed it soon complained of dizziness and began vomiting. They were then rushed to the Government Hospital at Marakkanam. As of Wednesday, nine men and one woman have lost their lives. More than 20 other residents are undergoing treatment at the Government Villupuram Medical College and Hospital. Murugan, son of Malarvizhi, a 62-year-old woman who died at the hospital after consuming spurious alcohol at home, said, “My mother didn’t tell us that she had had the liquor. By the time we knew, it was too late.”

The fishing community at Ekkiyarkuppam is standing in solidarity with the mourning families and has not ventured into the sea since May 15. In addition to the 10 deaths in Ekkiyarkuppam, four deaths have been reported from Marakkanam taluk in Villupuram, while eight deaths have been reported from Chengalpattu district as of Wednesday. Many fear that the death toll might increase in the coming days. 

Compensation ‘a political stunt’

After Chief Minister MK Stalin announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for each of the bereaved families, Education Minister K Ponmudi visited them at Ekkiyarkuppam on May 16 and distributed the cheques. However, Madhivanan alleged, “Minister Ponmudi didn’t even speak to the other residents to hear our demands or allegations. We appreciate the compensation that the government has provided, but so many have died and money will not solve this problem.” 

A cheque that was handed over to a victim's family

Ragu, another resident, dismissed the distribution of compensation as a political stunt. “A couple from our village died at sea while fishing in 2019. We have been trying to get their three young children a compensation amount, but both the previous AIADMK and the current DMK governments have done nothing. But [in the spurious liquor tragedy], Rs 10 lakh has been announced by the CM only because Opposition party leader Edappadi K Palaniswami announced that he would visit our village and provide Rs 5 lakh to the affected families.”

Activists allege inaction by PEW

The police said that they have seized around 600 litres of industrial grade methanol sold to different people by Ilaya Nambi. They also said that surveillance has been stepped up, and that sale and movement of methanol from industrial areas is being tracked. However, activists feel that the Tamil Nadu government’s Prohibition Enforcement Wing (PEW) has failed in controlling the menace of spurious liquor smuggling along the Tamil Nadu-Puducherry border. The Union Territory of Puducherry has no prohibition laws. This allegedly facilitates the flow of spurious liquor into the state, along with regular liquor. 

A source who spoke to TNM on the condition of anonymity said that PEW is aware of the smuggling, distribution, and supply of spurious liquor from Puducherry into Tamil Nadu. Yet, there has been negligible effort to stop it, the source said. “The understanding between the spurious liquor mafia and the police is clear, they would get people for two or three cases per month and fake accused would be produced in court. The spurious liquor sale would continue without any hindrance,” the source added. 

The role of PEW has come under the scanner with the spurious liquor tragedy. Chief Minister Stalin has now sought a weekly report on action taken by the Police Department to curb the production and sale of spurious liquor. 

Inputs from Shabbir Ahmed

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