A poisonous mix in India: Crushing poverty, weak police and deadly liquor

Mourners bid farewell to Indians poisoned by illicit liquor

Mourners gathered under an ash-colored sky Monday outside Sathivel Nagakounder’s one-room house, the women wailing and wiping their eyes with their saris. His body was wreathed in garlands, wrapped in a snow-white shroud and carried through dirt lanes still soft from the morning rain.

In the northern Mumbai slum of Kharodi, the people have lost count of the funeral processions. More than 100 people have died since last week from drinking a toxic batch of homemade liquor, one of the worst such incidents in India in recent years, with dozens more still hospitalized.

Officials say the victims suffered poisoning by methanol, a cheap alcohol that bootleggers add to provide a kick, but which can be lethal in all but the smallest quantities.

Nagakounder, a married father of three, began vomiting blood last week after visiting one of the many unmarked neighborhood stalls that sell the illicit spirits, family members said.

“We have never seen people getting sick like this before,” said his brother, Shivraj Nagakounder. “Almost everyone who was hospitalized has died.”

The deaths have robbed families of their main breadwinners and cast a spotlight on the poisonous mixture of poverty, alcohol and weak law enforcement in India’s poorest neighborhoods. In Kharodi, the nominally illegal homemade liquor sells for as little as 15 cents for a half-pint, sold by the glass or in clear plastic bags.

Distilled in drums from a mixture of cane sugar and ammonium chloride – and laced with methanol, battery acid or even crushed glass – the unlicensed liquor is widely consumed by construction workers, sewer cleaners and other laborers who want a cheap, quick high after hours of back-breaking work.

The first cases in Kharodi – a mixed neighborhood of Hindu, Muslim and Christian families at the edge of a booming middle-class suburb – surfaced Thursday morning. Nagakounder, who made about $125 a month digging trenches for a mobile phone company, had visited one of the local hooch vendors, known as addas, after work with a friend, who also died.

“The body aches and you want something to reduce the pain,” said a family friend, Vediyappan Kaoundar, explaining the motivation to drink after a punishing day of work.

Taxes on alcohol are extremely high in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, making most legal booze unaffordable for the lower classes. But mass deaths from tainted liquor have occurred in many other Indian cities.

Earlier this year, more than two dozen died in the northern city of Lucknow. The deadliest recent case of toxic moonshine claimed the lives of 180 people in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Bootleggers operate in plain sight of local authorities, whom many residents accuse of accepting bribes to allow the trade to continue. A police station sits just a few hundred yards from the neighborhood where Nagakounder and others purchased the liquor that killed them. Some would carry the plastic bags into the streets and drink in the open, mixing the alcohol with a bit of Sprite.

“A business cannot be run without the permission of local police,” said Datta Jadhav, a retired police inspector in Mumbai. “All officers in the area are aware if anyone is producing homemade liquor.”

Along with the arrests of seven suspected bootleggers, eight police officers and four state excise tax officials – who are responsible for granting licenses to liquor dealers – were suspended pending investigations into the case, officials said.

That offered little comfort to the family members of victims, who say authorities have long known about the toll of illegal moonshine on their communities.

“The alcohol should be banned altogether,” said Shakila Abdurrahman, whose husband, a construction worker, visited the addas almost every day after work. He died over the weekend, leaving behind two daughters and a son, she said.

“We had quarrels at home about it,” she said, standing in front of a warren of tin-walled shacks in Kharodi as roosters walked about.

“If you listen at night, there is bickering constantly in all the houses between the husbands and wives about the drinking. But now he is dead, so what can I do?”

In a third-story ward at a nearby city-run hospital, eight men lay in their beds Monday afternoon, having been treated for methanol poisoning but declared stable. Virendra Sanani, a 45-year-old painter, said he had only one drink last week but checked into the hospital after stories of poisoning began circulating and his wife and children demanded it.

“I won’t think of drinking that any more,” he said. “But those who can’t afford more expensive liquor will probably continue, even though they shouldn’t.”

Down a narrow, muddy path in Kharodi, two children proudly pointed out the house where they said police officers arrested two suspected hooch-sellers, a husband and wife, in a dramatic episode on Sunday. A plywood door, locked from the inside, was emblazoned with the image of Jesus.

Rapping on the door, Sahil, a tousle-haired boy of no more than 8, said matter-of-factly, “There’s still a lot of liquor inside.”

Special correspondent Parth M.N. contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times