Tainted moonshine kills more than 120 in India

Indian officials ordered a criminal investigation Thursday after more than 120 people died within 48 hours of drinking tainted bootleg alcohol in the state of West Bengal. The death toll was expected to rise given that dozens of patients remained in critical condition in area hospitals.

The government of the eastern state promised to give $4,000 to each victim's family and arrested seven people on suspicion of selling the liquor, although those who manufactured it were reportedly on the run.

"My husband used to drink every day, and last night he also was drinking," an unidentified woman dressed in a blue sari told the Times Now television network. "We rushed him to the hospital thinking he will get better, but he died."

Indian TV video showed the corridor of a hospital in Sangrampur, about 20 miles south of Kolkata, packed with patients poisoned by the moonshine, some being shielded by family members to prevent their intravenous drips from getting knocked out by passing crowds. Beside them in the hallway, corpses awaited removal, including one with a numbered sticker on its forehead.

Most of those who died were rickshaw pullers, manual laborers and others living on the margin who drank the liquor at one of a series of thekas, makeshift roadside bars, supplied by the same illegal distillery.

Local officials said manual laborers started getting sick Tuesday night around Sangrampur after drinking the home brew, known locally as chepti, which was laced with methanol. Used as a fuel, solvent or antifreeze, methanol is highly toxic, and ingesting it can lead to blindness or death.

By Wednesday morning, patients were pouring into area hospitals complaining of stomach pain, diarrhea and breathing problems as the death toll mounted.

"I want to take strong action against those manufacturing and selling illegal liquor," Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal's highest elected official, told local news media. "But this is a social problem also, and this has to be dealt with socially … along with [taking direct] action."

Local TV reports also showed angry residents blaming police for ignoring their repeated complaints about the bootleg problem, despite evidence of empty moonshine containers littering the area.

So-called country liquor, often sold in plastic bags for as little as 20 cents per 16 ounces, is widespread in Indian cities and rural areas and deaths are not uncommon, although most poisoning happens on a smaller scale. In 2009, however, 130 people died from a batch of tainted alcohol in the western state of Gujarat.

Subhash, 30, a Delhi resident who only uses one name, said he started drinking country liquor at age 12 for fun and to relieve stress and temper family problems. He's tapered off after developing health problems and currently drinks legal liquor three times a week.

"Even these deaths won't make much difference," he said. "The business will still flourish everywhere in India."

West Bengal's illegal-alcohol industry thrives, destroying lives at the bottom of society, because many senior politicians and influential businessmen have ownership stakes and local police receive bribes to look the other way, said S.H. Muinuddin, a sociology professor at West Bengal's Vidyasagar University.

"Corruption is the most important factor, or how else would these businesses flourish?" he said. "We need the government to take action."

Despite the country's religious and cultural taboos against imbibing, alcohol consumption and related social problems are rising sharply, particularly among the young, although it is still low relative to India's huge population. Alcohol accounts for 60% of all injuries reported in Indian emergency rooms, according to Britain's Lancet medical journal, with illegal hooch or smuggled imports accounting for two-thirds of the alcohol consumed in the country.

Because illegal alcohol is sold so cheaply and those who consume it tend to like it strong, its distillers often use cheap, adulterated ingredients, including furniture polish, to make a profit, said Pradip Prabhu, dean of rural development studies at Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

In some cases, home brew is handed out to laborers as part of their pay, said Prabhu, who worked for three decades for a civic group fighting its consumption in rural areas. As states have increased taxes on legal liquor to boost revenue, more people drink far cheaper moonshine, leading to domestic violence, broken homes and deaths.

"Unfortunately police tend to look on it as something you live with," Prabhu said.

India has approximately one police officer per 1,000 workers, among the world's lowest ratio, and corruption is widespread. As the death toll mounted Wednesday, police destroyed 10 illicit liquor shops in Diamond Harbor, one of the affected communities. But analysts said most would probably be back in business once the furor dies down.

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Tanvi Sharma of The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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