Kanchana spends his life in the pretext of engaging in a legitimate trade of plying several privately owned buses
A growing public outrage was evident in the surrounding areas of Banduragoda, Gaspe and Pallewela
The police learnt that the victims had consumed the brew from a spot in Banduragoda
The huge urge to guzzle down a cup of Kasippu to salvage their day’s spent energy at dusk is perhaps the ultimate satisfying feeling for a daily paid minor labourer, who is into drinking. Driven out of exhaustion most underprivileged workers in Sri Lanka rely on an affordable swig of illicitly brewed liquor to enliven the spirits of gloomy lifestyles and also have a peaceful sleep. But none of those Banduragoda kasippu consumers would have dreamt that this urge for the devil’s brew would be his last.
The number of lives lost since that dark day (August 01) had risen to 14 by August 8 (Thursday) whilst many others are still being treated in several hospitals. These figures don’t include those who maybe taking treatment discretely due to the social stigma associated with being a Kasippu drinker.
The incident unfolded when two persons admitted to Mirigama Base Hospital on August 1 evening in a critical condition died within couple of hours after admission. The victims who were aged 63 and 82 were identified as residents of Banduragoda.
The doctors had initially decided that the death of the 63-year-old person was due to a heart failure and the demise of the elderly man was related to natural causes. The atmosphere was normal until the second day where several others were admitted over various ailments. Two of them had died on August 3.
The issue suddenly became an eye opener for the authorities as close to 20 individuals had been admitted by August 3. All patients were complaining of nausea, vomiting, palpitation, high blood pressure, burning sensation in the chest and stomach, severe body pains, burning eyes, blurred vision and partial blindness, which were the symptoms associated with their condition.
Concurrently to the advancing number of patients flooding the hospital, there was speculation that all these individuals had fallen ill due to liquor poisoning.
Officials of the Pallewela Police Station. situated near the Banduragoda area, promptly commenced investigating the incident. The police searched the root cause of the problem which revealed that the victims had consumed this poisonous brew.
The police learnt that the victims had consumed the brew from a spot in Banduragoda and run by a businessman by the name ‘Kanchana’.
Pallewela Police officials led by Officer in Charge Inspector Kamal Ratnayake had raided the house of the businessman Kanchana on August 03 in Gaspe.
‘Mudalali’ and henchman nabbed
The 57-year- old businessman or the ‘Kasippu Mudalali’ Kithalawalana Kankanamlage Kanchana Ajith along with his most trusted assistant Ella Pitagedara Subasinghe (55) were nabbed in connection with the death of four persons and poisoning over 30 others. The second suspect had been identified as the person who had sold Kasippu to the consumers.
Having questioned the owner of the illicit business the police learnt that Kanchana had however brewed and distilled his liquor at another house in Loluwagoda area. A special Police team had been immediately dispatched to search this second house in ‘Camillus Watte’.
The police having raided the second house managed to discover eight litres of distilled Kasippu spirit from an attached bathroom, which had been used as a safe place by Kanchana for distillation processes. The owner of the house who is also the father of Kanchana’s daughter-in-law, Pathiranage Lionel Abeysiri was taken into custody for aiding and abetting an illicit trade.
All three suspects had been produced before the Attanagalla Magistrate’s Courts were ordered to be remanded till August 07.
Public outrage against Police
However, the issue did not end as two more persons died on August 05 about 10 persons got themselves admitted to Mirigama and Wathupitiwala Hospitals.
A growing public outrage was evident in the surrounding areas of Banduragoda, Gaspe and Pallewela where by now more than five persons had died due to poisoning caused by moonshine. It is said that the Pallewela Police officials had not taken any action against ‘Kanchana’ or his illegal business.
The villagers and the family members of the deceased victims were accusing the police being corrupt and had obtained large sums of money from the ‘Kasippu Mudalali’.
The issue worsened during the funeral processions of two victims in Gaspe. Those joining the funeral procession when passing Kanchana’s house had stopped there and opened the coffins in a mark of protest.
By that time a group of supporters loyal to Kanchana had remained at the house. The Pallewela Police had intervened and avoided an unpleasant scenario.
The remains were soon brought to the respective cemeteries and the burials were performed after an open verdict had been given by the JMO preventing cremation.
However, to avoid any growing public outrage against the police over many allegations that they had simply failed to carry out their duties properly, a group of police officers attached to Pallewela Police Station were transferred to different police areas with immediate effect by the Senior Superintendent of Police Gampaha Division.
Amongst the transferred officers were Acting ASP Attanagalla Thusitha Kumara to the Mannar Division, OIC Pallewela Police IP Kamal Ratnayake to Kalutara Division and an Inspector, a Sub Inspector, A Sergeant and two Constables of the Pallewela Station to other police areas.
In the meantime, Senior DIG Western Province Jagath Abeysirigunawardena on the instructions of acting IGP C D Wickramaratne ordered a full probe into the incident. With these orders special teams from Gampaha Police SSP Division and Negombo Division Special Crime Detection Unit were deployed.
These officials had visited the houses of the victims and recorded statements from residents and obtained information from witnesses who knew Kanchana and his illicit trade. They also noted down accusations made by the public against the Pallewela Police.
By Wednesday, August 07 the total number of persons who had lost their lives due to poisoning illicit liquor reached 14. Nine of them were from Banduragoda area, two were from Mirigama, one from Katana (watcher of Lunumidellawatta), one from Badulla. The last person to pass away was from Kotadeniyawa.
Meanwhile persons were being treated at Mirigama Hospital, Wathupitiwala Hospital, Gampaha General Hospital and Colombo North Teaching Hospital in Ragama.
A brew with a toxic punch
Similar to the special police teams that were doing their rounds in and out of hospitals in the Gampaha District gathering information from the survivors of this major Kasippu attack, the Dailymirror investigation team too had access in coupling of survivors who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A 65-year-old father of three children disclosed how he went to Kanchana Mudalali’s house in Poththawila area in Gaspe on August 01 evening.
“At that time it was ‘Kalu Aiya’ (Subasinghe) who was selling liquor. Kalu Aiya doesn’t usually drink. I ordered a shot worth Rs.100 and gulped it down without further ado. It was entirely different that day as there was no taste of petrol or kerosene in Kasippu, which it usually has.
“Since it tasted strange I did not drink anymore. Usually I buy drinks for about Rs.200. When I returned home I felt my entire body was getting numb. I was feeling very lethargic and feverish. To fix my mood I bought a quarter of authorized arrack from the wine stores and had it.
“It didn’t make things any smoother. I was losing my eyesight and collapsed before my family members who rushed me to Divulapitiya Hospital. I was transferred to National Hospital Colombo where my condition became stable” he recalled.
Who is Kanchana Mudalali?
Kithalawalana Kankanamlage Kanchana Ajith (57) alias ‘Kanchana Mudalali’ is a big time businessman in Mirigama and its suburbs, who has grown to that position starting from scratch.
Making his main source of income the manufacturing and distribution of Kasippu in a large area of Gampaha District and maybe furthermore, Kanchana Mudalali presently spends his life in the pretext of engaging in a legitimate trade of plying several privately owned buses in the surrounding routes.
His notoriety dates back to four decades ago where he was believed to have started his little brewing business. According to residents of Banduragoda, Kanchana Mudalali had build an image where either the local police or the Excise officials would think twice before crossing his path.
The tremendous amount of wealth he is said to have massed throughout the years is believed to be more than Rs.100 million. He is also a philanthropist in his locality.
When the Dailymirror and Lankadeepa Mirigama Special Correspondent Pushpakumara Mallawarachchi, who had once served in the Kotadeniyawa Police Station as a Constable in late 1980’s, he had the opportunity to meet Kanchana Mudalali.
Kanchana Ajith, who was then newly married to his wife, had come to the Kotadeniyawa Police Station to lodge a complaint as the latter had eloped with another man. The entry making Constable Pushpakumara when inquired what his name was, he was told that it was Kanchana Ajith from Mirigama. The Constable had then sarcastically said “wasn’t there a Kasippu Mudalali by the name Kanchana. The complainant had politely replied “sir, e mama” (sir that is me).
When the present Wattala Police OIC Chief Inspector Eric Perera was the OIC Mirigama Police few years back Kanchana had surrendered all his distilling equipment and had publicly undertaken not to be involved in the contraband activity.
The modus operandi
When queried, Acting OIC Pallewela Police Station Inspector J L D Wijethilake disclosed to the Dailymirror how Kanchana Mudalali had been carrying out his business.
According to their preliminary investigations Kanchana Mudalali had carried out the illicit liquor business in a well organised manner with a number of loyal supporters in his neighbourhood. He had not only brewed and distributed or sold in his neighbourhood but had delivered the spirits to far off areas.
Although, he sells his liquor through ‘golayas’ at a neighbouring house belonging to a woman called ‘Charlotte Akka’ the spirits were never distilled at Kanchana mudalali’s large house. For that he had used his daughter-in-laws house in Loluwagoda with the aid of her father Lionel.
However, the most interesting fact about his business was that unlike so many instances in the country where the Kasippu Mudalalis never involve themselves in the act of brewing or distributing, it was Kanchana Mudalali who had always prepared his brew.
The fateful poisonous brew was prepared in the early morning of Thursday, August 1 and once the distillation process was completed he had transported the two barrels to his own house in Poththawila. He had then, as the usual practice distributed one barrel to one of his sub dealers ‘Divulapitiya Jayathissa’. The remaining barrel he had personally diluted with the correct scale of water and prepared the ready to drink Kasippu mixture, which turned out to be a quantity twice as much as the original spirit amount.
To carry out these support services there are a number of henchmen that would loyally and secretly perform their duty.
Mirigama Excise puts blame on the police
When asked officials at the Mirigama Excise office said that they hardly had any clue about a person called Kanchana Mudalali who is notorious for his Kasippu industry as claimed by many others.
However, when queried in depth the officials admitted that there had been three cases against the supporters of Kanchana’s Kasippu business this year alone, but the owner was always careful enough not to engage himself in the act.
They also pointed out that how with difficultly they had managed their duties with a dearth of officers to look into over 35 licensed liquor selling premises in three Divisional Secretariat areas of Mirigama, Divulapitiya and Katana.
The Excise officials claimed that it was a cakewalk for the police to deal with all these Kasippu Mudalalis with the power vested in them and the sort of manpower and resources they possess compared to the Excise Station.
How the brew went wrong
A survivor and a close ally of Kanchana Mudalali whilst giving his statement to a special police team at the Mirigama Hospital explained how the poisonous brew might have been made.
“When I was working in my garden in Gaspe, Kanchana Mudalali with a supporter approached me on July 31 and said that from tomorrow on wards I would be getting some strong stuff from him. I didn’t pay much heed to this, but as usual went to his Kasippu. The following day (August 01) I went there in the evening and had a couple of shots and returned home. On August 02 I went there to have a shot in the afternoon and I could take only one sip as the entire brew tasted different. That time Kanchana Mudalali came up to me and asked what was wrong? Is there any smell of Thinner coming from the drink, he asked me. He also asked how strong this drink was. Since, I did not like the taste of it and as it was giving me a ghastly feeling I just finished that single shot and returned home. But before I left I think I heard he was telling his supporter that recent stock made in a used barrel of thinner would have given a stronger product.
“That night I became so ill and felt as if my eyesight was fading. I couldn’t see anymore. I was feeling very sick and wanted to vomit. I was rushed to the hospital and given immediate treatment. I was gaining consciousness slowly and later on received a special treatment of doses of ‘Vat 09 Arrack’ that brought me out of this agonizing misery,” he said, seemingly still under the influence of his latest treatment.
Is it the Chemical Toddy next?
It is not once or twice liquor consumers have died due to alcohol poisoning in the local history. But it could clearly be stated as this was the gravest of all with such a high number of deaths reported in the recent past. Kasippu was much known for its role of slowly poisoning the consumers. The room to manufacture illicit liquor thrives mostly on the appalling demand for cheap spirits coming from those who cannot purchase a state authorised alcoholic beverage due to unreasonable government tax.
When spoken on consumer rights and social equality, a factor most of the authorities or the political leadership tend to forget is that how an underprivileged individual would fulfill his desire to have a safe drink like someone from the affluent society.
The toddy industry was producing cheap, but a popular substitute for the desiring consumer in Sri Lanka for a longtime that prevented them from resorting to Kasippu or the illicit booze. However, with the failing supply of toddy with a very limited number of trees countrywide, the poor man is falling short of options.
A number of instances were highlighted in the media recently where attempts were made to manufacture chemically composed toddy as an option. This, according to specialists is a far dangerous brew that would harm its unsuspecting consumers and even lead to chronic kidney diseases and death. So is the government turning a blind eye to the issue until the chemical toddy industry starts flourishing? The Dailymirror is on the lookout.
Pix and additional reports by Samantha Perera and Pushpakumara Mallawarachchi (Mirigama)