Deaths in India by tainted liquor
Deaths in India by tainted liquor Reuters

More than three dozen people have died from alcohol poisoning in a village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. According to a report in BBC, at least 42 people in the villages of Atardiha and Mubarakpur in Azamgarh district expired after consuming toxic liquor that was likely spiked with an excessive amount of chemicals. Dozens more have been hospitalized, as local police officials have commenced an investigation into the tragedy. Some of the victims have reportedly already gone blind.

Officials said they expect the death toll to rise further, but in the meantime they have raided several illegal stills and detained two dozen people in connection with the poisoning deaths.

However, dying from tainted alcohol is nothing new in India – particularly for the rural poor who can purchase homemade booze called “desi daroo” or “hooch” for as cheaply as 10 rupees ($0.16) per unit. Manufacturers frequently “augment” the liquor with such substances as pesticides, ammonium nitrate and other industrial chemicals in order give the drink more flavor or potency, a recipe that often leads to stomach aches, convulsions, vomiting and even death.

Indeed, in December 2011, 169 people in West Bengal died from consuming bootleg liquor, while more than 100 perished in Gujarat in July 2009 from the same affliction. In 2008, more than 100 were killed in Karnataka, while 41 expired in Tamil Nadu. In 1992, in a particularly egregious case, almost 200 people in Orissa died after drinking a concoction of methyl and ethyl alcohol.

"When swallowed in high concentrations, ammonium nitrate may cause headache, dizziness, abdominal pain, vomiting, heart irregularities, convulsions, collapse, and death," said Dr Bob Patton of the Addictions Department at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London. "Methyl alcohol, or methanol, which is commonly used for anti-freeze, can also be added to illicit liquor to increase its alcohol content. Methanol is highly toxic to humans, and ingestion of just 10ml can result in blindness, and 30ml or more is usually fatal."

BBC noted that only three Indian states -- Gujarat, Mizoram and Nagaland – prohibit alcohol. In fact, Gujarat has passed legislation calling for the death penalty for people convicted of manufacturing tainted liquor.

However, the scale of illegal liquor manufacture in India is believed to be massive (in response to huge demand) and nearly impossible to control. Part of the problem is that domestically manufactured alcohol is beyond the affordability of India’s poor population, due to heavy taxes. Prerna Suri, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, who reported on alcohol deaths in Bengal a few years ago, explained that bootleg alcohol is widely available in India, with thousands dying from poisoning every year.

"Although India does have strict laws banning the sale of illegal alcohol, on the ground it is very difficult to monitor and implement,” she said. "This locally brewed alcohol known by various local names is a popular poor man's drink. It is manufactured and produced in people's homes, also in large industrial units. So monitoring and supervising the safety standards in these units is quite difficult.”

Suri added that official corruption also exacerbates the problem. “In most of the cases we have seen that local officials, including the police, are also involved in protecting these suppliers or bootleggers who have been selling to local residents," she said.