Death toll in Punjab hooch tragedy rises to 86; 7 excise officials, six cops suspended

Chandigarh: The death toll in the Punjab hooch tragedy rose to 86 with 48 more people reported dead on Saturday after drinking spurious liquor, prompting the state government to suspend seven excise and six police officials.

Sixty-three of the deaths were reported from Tarn Taran district, 12 in Amritsar and 11 in Gurdaspur's Batala, officials said.

The tragedy has been unfolding since Wednesday evening in the three Punjab districts.

Twenty-five people have been arrested so far amid opposition criticism and demands for the resignation of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who has warned of strict action against anyone found complicit in the case.

According to an official statement, the suspended officials included two deputy superintendents of police and four station house officers.

The first deaths were reported in Amritsar's Muchhal village on Wednesday evening.

By Friday night, according to official figures, 38 people had died.

By Saturday night, the toll has risen sharply with 48 more deaths being reported during the day.

Officials here did not give any figures on the number of people still admitted to hospitals after drinking illegally distilled liquor.

Police have conducted several raids to nab the culprits. After eight arrests on Friday, they nabbed 17 more people in over 100 raids in the three districts and several other places on Saturday. The raiding parties seized large quantities of 'lahan' (raw material for making liquor) from various villages and 'dhabas' in the region around the Shambhu border, Rajpura and Patiala, Director General of Police Dinkar Gupta said.

The raids have exposed a massive liquor racket, extending across several districts, he said, adding that several dhabas at Shambhu, Banur and Rajpura of Patiala have been sealed.

Meanwhile, Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal attacked the state government, alleging that Chief Minister Amarinder Singh heads a "murderous" government, which has the "blood of more than 80 Punjabis on its hands".

In a statement issued in Amritsar, Sukhbir alleged, "The hooch tragedy is the direct and natural consequence of the patronage given to Congress leaders, including ministers and MLAs, for freely carrying out rampant illicit liquor trade in the state." It is a murder, pure and simple. All the guilty, including ministers and ruling party MLAs, be arrested," he demanded, adding that the CM should step down immediately owning the moral responsibility for this "horrendous crime".

Sukhbir also rejected the magisterial probe ordered by the CM and demanded an independent inquiry by a sitting judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh urged Sukhbir not to "politicise the tragedy", saying such cases had happened earlier too under the SAD-BJP regime.

Similar incidents had occurred in 2012 and 2016 in Gurdaspur and Batala, respectively, the CM said.

Several lives were lost in those cases too, the CM said, adding that in the Batala incident, no FIR was registered and no action taken against the main accused. The CM also announced Rs 2 lakh ex gratia for each of the families of the deceased.

He described the police and excise department failure to check the manufacturing and sale of spurious liquor as "shameful".

Nobody will be allowed to get away with feeding poison to our people, he said in an official statement here.

"Such illegal acts are not acceptable", the CM said, asserting that the life of every single Punjabi was precious to him and he will not "let people die due to the greed of a few criminals".

During the 13th edition of his Facebook Live #AskCaptain, the CM announced the suspension of ETOs Lovejinder Brar from Gurdaspur, BS Chahal from Amritsar and Madhur Bhatia from Tarn Taran.

Excise and Taxation Inspectors (ETIs) who have been suspended with immediate effect are Ravi Kumar (Gurdaspur), Gurdeep Singh (Amritsar), Pukhraj (Fatehabad) and Hitesh Prabhakar (Tarn Taran).

He also suspended Jandiala (Amritsar) and Tarn Taran DSPs.

The SHOs of Amritsar's Tarsikka, Batala City, Tarn Taran Sadar and Tarn Taran City were also suspended.

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