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Bootlegging goes high-tech


A PEG OF KALA GHODA Code words are also part of the tricks of the trade. Each brand has a street name. Black Label becomes 'Kala Ghoda', Teacher's becomes 'Masterji', whiskey becomes 'Coca Cola', and vodka, 'Ladies Soda'. Aristocrat whiskey is referred to as 'Royal' while beer is simply 'Barley Water'.

It was a filmi chase on a sweaty Ahmedabad night. The sirens on the police jeep were blaring as it tailed the SUV criss-crossing the city streets. And the wireless was crackling with the sound of senior officers barking orders. After a half-hour chase, Santosh Dubey, 35, his car laden with around 100 bottles of the best brands of Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL), was finally cornered. If it was any consolation for Dubey, 114 other people have been arrested so far this year in Ahmedabad for ferrying IMFL in a dry state.

When you have a drink in Ahmedabad, you pull the curtains over your windows and look suspiciously through the peephole each time the doorbell rings. But almost everybody knows that you will be opening a bottle of scotch or vodka as you walk home hauling a sagging bag full of soda bottles and snacks (better known as 'bitings' ) from the neighbourhood grocer.

That is the irony of Ahmedabad. Everybody knows that the best brands of liquor are easily available through the well-oiled network of bootleggers in Gujarat, one of the few states in the country that still has prohibition. But no one should see you open a bottle. Dubey must have broken many hearts that night, a whole lot of Amdavadis forced to party without a drink.

Every year, Gujarat police catches liquor worth Rs 100 crore. But that is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what slips through as bootleggers use some really inventive methods to skirt the few cops who are not ready to turn a blind eye.

"In the Dubey case, we came across a new modus operandi employed by bootleggers, " says MB Joshi, Ahmedabad assistant commissioner of police. "He was given a car by one of his associates near Himmatnagar. That person had come from Rajasthan and had no idea where the liquor was headed. In turn, Dubey was asked to abandon the car near a designated spot in the city. From there, other persons would take possession of the bottles. This MO makes it impossible to break the supply chain. "
Senior state police officials say that these days the liquor comes mostly from Haryana. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra too contribute their share. Trucks laden with IMFL cross the Rajashan border and then divide into smaller groups where the bottles are concealed in cartons of cotton, vegetables or industrial goods.

These mini trucks enter Gujarat through designated routes where the police are bribed generously. The stock is then transferred to SUVs that enter the city and reach the bootleggers.

"Bootleggers are the most innovative people around, " says a local crime branch (LCB) police inspector who has conducted more than 50 raids in the area. "Making cavities inside vehicles and bribing policemen is passê. New-age bootleggers wield laptops and employ GPS to figure out where the stock has reached and how to distribute it optimally. In a recent raid which netted us IMFL worth Rs 1. 5 crore from two trucks, we learnt that that a syndicate of bootleggers had purchased an entire farm near
Himmatnagar, considered an important transit point. They had converted it into a makeshift garage for trucks. From here the liquor went around the entire state. We raided the place several times but conniving bootleggers always knew of our plans. "

Citing an example of how the trade has changed over the years, police officials say that bootleggers no longer travel in twos. They have started employing women too. Police are less likely to check a car for liquor if it has a couple in it. "We have often seen children being used as couriers. They get detained, are sent to rehabilitation homes, come out and again join the gang. This practice is more prevalent in south Gujarat where children earn anything between Rs 2, 000 and Rs 5, 000 every month doing this work, " says an official.

"Bootleggers are no longer shabbily dressed men who conceal bottles wrapped in newspapers under their clothes. They speak English, drive cars and wear designer clothes. Their client list is stored in a separate smartphone used only to give missed calls. If you are a regular, he will call back - you cannot call him. Your favourite brand will arrive hidden in a bag of groceries or a bouquet of flowers, " says a senior police official.

In a recent raid, a bootlegger confessed to having 600 bottles with him. When he was asked to show his cache he nonchalantly tugged at a tap on the kitchen sink. An entire chunk of the wall came off;the booze lay in the cavity.

"These days, the demand comes mostly from college-goers, professionals with new money and migrants. Girls and women prefer beer and vodka. Vodka's market has shot up by 20 per cent in the last three years, " says a bootlegger.

As many as 36 policemen including police inspectors have been suspended or transferred in the last one year either for their alleged involvement in the bootlegging trade or for negligence (when another team raids their jurisdiction and recovers liquor).

"Seizures are often just a sham - a way for the police to show they are acting against bootleggers. But if they seize 10 bottles, they let 100 through. Cops go into overdrive during Holi, Diwali and New Year when the demand is at its peak, " says a seasoned bootlegger of Ahmedabad.

Reader's opinion (1)

Anthony VeliyilApr 24th, 2012 at 15:44 PM

Is it still worthwhile to keep this charade ongoing? Mahatma Ghandi's ideals would be better served by utlising the money and resources on welfare, and by taxing liqour sales.

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