, KOLKATA, Dec 15 – A batch of home-brewed liquor possibly laced with a lethal dose of the highly toxic chemical methanol has killed more than 100 people in eastern India, an official told AFP on Thursday.
Hospitals near the impoverished district of 24-Parganas, 30 kilometres from the West Bengal state capital Kolkata, have been overwhelmed by victims, many of them labourers and rickshaw drivers too poor to afford branded alcohol.
Bootleg liquor is widely consumed in India because of its low cost, with a local resident in the affected area telling AFP that a half-litre cost as little as 6.0 rupees (11 US dollar cents).
“The death toll has touched 102,” the district magistrate of 24-Parganas, Narayan Swarup Nigam, said by telephone, adding that many others were critically ill.
He said that methanol – a type of industrial-strength alcohol used as anti-freeze or fuel – had been found in the remains of 20 of the victims examined by doctors, leading to suspicion that the chemical was to blame.
It is sometimes added to “moonshine” in small quantities to increase the alcohol content, but it can cause blindness, liver damage and, in the worst cases, death.
“Methanol was found in the viscera (organs) of at least 20 victims. It may not be the sole reason for the death. We are investigating,” Chiranjib Murmu, superintendent of the local Diamond Harbour hospital, told AFP.
Four people have been arrested over the deaths, while the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has announced an inquiry and said the family of each victim will receive compensation of 200,000 rupees.
“I want to take strong action against those manufacturing and selling illegal liquor,” Banerjee told a regional Bengali-speaking television station in Kolkata late Thursday.
Angry local residents ransacked village breweries and staged protests, local police told AFP.
Johnson Edayaranmulah, executive director of the lobby group Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, said that deaths from adulterated alcohol were common in the country.
He said that if methanol was to blame, it might have been mistaken by the producers for ethanol, which is less toxic.
Bootleg liquor was available “everywhere” in India, he told AFP.
“Enforcement is very weak. There is an unholy nexus between the authorities – police, excise, politicians – and the bootleggers,” he explained.
“Police take bribes, excise officers take bribes, everyone turns a blind eye to this. It shows the corruption that is part of the Indian mindset.”