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Golden goose with butcher knife
Deadly mix of hooch & patronage

Sandip Chowdhury waits for his brother Sourav’s body outside the NRS morgue in Calcutta on Sunday. (Bishwarup Dutta)

Calcutta, July 6: Young Sourav Chowdhury was butchered because he tried to disrupt an “industry” that flourished in Bengal even when all-weather favourites like Saradha collapsed.

Dens that vend hooch or illicit liquor have grown at a scorching pace in places like Barasat, less than 30km from Calcutta, because the economics of the trade leaves behind enough even after cuts are given to police.

For instance, Kulberia, where the second-year BA student lived, had three or four hooch dens three years ago, according to some residents.

The number of hooch dens in and around Kulberia now stands at 15 — a four-fold increase in three years. Bamangachhi, an area in which Kulberia falls, has at least five such clusters.

On a “good day”, each den can sell between 250 and 300 pouches of illicit liquor. Each 200ml pouch costs between Rs 20 and Rs 30 while the cost of production ranges between Rs 8 and 10. The figures suggest each den can make a profit of Rs 6,000 on each “good day”.

Licensed country liquor works out cheaper at Rs 50 for 600ml.

But the hooch has many takers because it is considered more potent — “more kick per buck” as an India-made foreign liquor veteran put it. Licensed country liquor is described as “60 up”, which means 40 per cent alcohol and 60 per cent water. If the hooch drinkers are looking for more potency than this, it explains the cause behind some of the tragedies that occur once in a while.

“Unlike legal liquor that is made of molasses, hooch is manufactured from sugarcane. The profit percentage is high and a bulk of the money is paid to politicians and the police to look the other way,” said an insider in the legal liquor business.

Empty 200ml plastic pouches dot the railway tracks near which Sourav’s body was found yesterday. But the police have not yet “seen” any signs that the illegal trade is thriving.

Bhaskar Mukherjee, additional SP of North 24-Parganas where Kulberia is located, said today: “Whenever we get a complaint against a hooch den, we go and destroy it. We have not received any complaint from Kulberia regarding hooch dens in the past year.”

The officer’s statement serves to prove how successful the hooch operators have been: few dare file official complaints.

With the police looking the other way — and crude tricks like smashing streetlights providing cover for sheepish customers — only volunteers like Sourav, a second-year BA student, stood in the way of the hooch trade.

The murderers of Sourav chopped his body into at least nine pieces — a gangland-style execution intended at spreading terror among other would-be do-gooders.

The prime suspect — Shyamal Karmakar, who has been described as a Trinamul activist although the party has denied any link — was at large till late tonight. (See Metro)

Not that the dens operate from inaccessible areas. “The market just outside Bamangachhi railway station turns into an open-air bar after sunset. Shops that sell vegetables and fruits during the day start selling hooch in the evening,” said a resident.

The entire one-kilometre concrete stretch that connects Bamangachhi with Jessore Road plunges into darkness after sunset. The streetlights are either switched off or the bulbs smashed by hooch traders and their customers.

The vending racket is different from the manufacturing operation. According to police sources, there is no hooch-making unit in Kulberia. “Hooch is transported on local trains from nearby pockets. There are several hooch manufacturing units in New Barrackpore, Madhyamgram and Sajirhat that cater to a large area, including Bamangachhi. Poor people work as carriers and they transport it in local trains,” said an officer.

Some residents blamed “non-existent policing” for the flourishing trade.

“Earlier, when there was only a police outpost in the area, the officers often made the excuse of inadequate staff strength. Now there is a full-fledged police station but hardly any patrolling,” said a Kulberia resident.

Duttapukur police station, which has jurisdiction over Kulberia, was set up last year after a college girl was raped and murdered in Kamduni, about 30km away in another part of Barasat. It was one of the four police stations carved out of Barasat police station.

Duttapukur police station has 60 cops on its rolls and looks after an area of 157sqkm.

“The area spreads over 157sqkm. It is not possible to deploy officers at every nook and corner,” said an officer.

No police station in Calcutta has more than 10sqkm under its jurisdiction but many police stations in the districts, for instance Barasat and Habra in North 24-Parganas, have more than 200sqkm under their jurisdiction.

A local Trinamul leader said: “Karmakar switched from the CPM to Trinamul in 2008 along with several lower-level CPM leaders. He started controlling land deals in the area. With the money he made, he started opening one hooch den after the other.”

Although Bamangachhi is a panchayat area, it does not resemble a village. Real estate “development” — another segment that has survived the business blues in Bengal — has brought in several professionals as residents. But it has also drawn some unwelcome visitors.

“Outsiders would visit the hooch dens and harass local women after getting drunk. When Sourav started protesting against this, Shyamal and his men threatened to teach him a lesson,” said Sandip Chowdhury, Sourav’s elder brother.

“It is almost impossible for women to step out after sunset. People drinking in the hooch dens pass lewd comments. The streetlights are switched off and there are no policemen around,” said Purnima Dey, a resident of Bamangachhi.

Juthika Das, a homemaker, said: “I have to walk nearly 500 metres around 8pm to bring my 12-year-old daughter home from her tuition class thrice a week. There is a narrow lane that leads to my house from the metalled road. While walking along the narrow lane, I was targeted by Shyamal and his men several times with lewd remarks. Now I take my brother-in-law with me.”

Most of the allegations centre around Karmakar. Two weeks ago, Karmakar allegedly punched his neighbour Dilip Das, 50, and broke a tooth after he protested against Shyamal switching off the streetlight in front of his house.