The Supreme Court on Monday expressed dissatisfaction over the progress in investigation into some cases of illicit liquor trade in Punjab and said the state is treating the issue with “kid gloves”. The apex court, which observed that poor and downtrodden people are the “sufferers” of hooch tragedies, directed the Punjab excise department to apprise it about the particulars concerning certain FIRs that have been lodged in this regard.
A bench of justices M R Shah and M M Sundresh said it appears that no serious efforts seem to have been made to reach the real culprits who are in the business of manufacturing and transporting illegal liquor.
“You are treating it with kids glove,” the bench observed.
The top court was hearing a plea arising out of a September 2020 order of the Punjab and Haryana High Court that had disposed of a petition seeking transfer of some FIRs registered in Punjab in relation to distillation of spurious liquor, its sale and inter-state smuggling, to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
The high court had disposed of the plea in terms of the statement made by the state’s counsel who had assured the court that concerns raised by petitioners would be duly dealt with and suitable action be initiated, if necessary.
During the hearing before the apex court, advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the petitioners, said that according to the counter affidavit filed by the excise department, some actions have been taken against certain distilleries including suspension of licences and levy of penalties or duties.
He said only petty labourers who work in such factories have been charge sheeted in such cases and no politician or police official has been prosecuted.
“Let us see what kind of allegations are made in these FIRs,” the bench said.
The state’s counsel said these FIRs are not on record.
The top court observed that cancelling licences is not enough unless there is a deterrent.
“In a hooch tragedy, who is the sufferer? Not those who can afford whisky. Common people and those who are downtrodden are the sufferers,” the bench said, adding that “take this very seriously”.
The state’s counsel said he would file a detailed report with regard to these FIRs.
The bench noted that allegations in the petition are with respect to large scale illegal liquor manufacturing and sale in Punjab.
“It cannot be disputed that because of illegal manufacturing of liquor, that too sub-standard manufacture, and transportation of liquor, hooch tragedy are taking place and poor people are the sufferers because ultimately, either it affects their health or even in many cases, many people have even lost their lives,” it said.
The bench said an additional affidavit has been filed before it by an official of the excise department of the Punjab government pointing out some steps taken against such distilleries and bottling points during the last year.
It also noted that a status report has been filed with regard to the FIRs which are 13 in number.
“As such, we are not at all satisfied with the progress in the investigation,” it said, adding that cancelling the licences or recovery of penalties or duties is not sufficient.
It said nothing has been pointed out on whether penalties or duties levied are paid. The bench observed that out of the 13 FIRs, only in three cases, charge sheets are reported to be filed, and with respect to remaining FIRs, the investigation is reported to be pending.
No particulars of the FIRs such as against whom they have been filed and who have been charge sheeted are disclosed, it said.
The apex court directed that a counter affidavit be filed before it giving details, including about the distilleries whose licences are reported to have been cancelled or penalties or duties that have been levied and particulars and allegations made in these FIRs.
It said manufacturing of illicit liquor in the state shows the lack of periodical inspection or supervision by police and the excise department.
The apex court has posted the matter for hearing on December 5.
Before the high court, the petitioners had argued that illegal distilleries, bottling plants and distillation of contraband liquor have increased manifold in Punjab and the liquor mafia continues to thrive.
They had also referred to the August 2020 hooch tragedy in Punjab in which over 100 people had died owing to consumption of spurious liquor.