India hit by another fatal illicit alcohol incident

A second mass poisoning caused by illicit alcohol has hit India in the space of two weeks, with the latest incident already claiming around 150 lives as the death toll mounts.

The culprit once again is bootleg spirits contaminated with methanol, with local police suggesting that in this case ethanol may have been added deliberately, according to local news reports.

Methanol can be a by-product of the fermentation and distillation process to make alcohol but is usually only present in small quantities. It can become concentrated if the temperature of distillation is too high, or be created when additional ingredients are added, but in some cases is deliberately introduced as a cheaper substitute to ethanol or to sweeten the end product. If ingested in large quantities, methanol can cause blindness, respiratory distress, liver damage and death.

The latest incident took place in the northeast state of Assam and involves mainly workers in the region’s world-famous tea plantations, with another couple of hundred people hospitalised for poisoning symptoms.

34 people have been arrested in connection with the tragedy, including a man accused of supplying the liquor and, while two health department officials have been suspended for failing to take adequate precautions to tackle the illicit trade.

Earlier this month more than 100 people were killed Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand states, while prior incidents killed 100-plus people in Mumbai in 2015 and 168 people in West Bengal in 2011. The cases with concentrated high death tolls capture the headlines, but it is estimated that hundreds of people die every year across India from consuming bootleg alcohol.

There have been fresh calls for a crackdown on the illicit trade in the wake of the recent incidents, and Assam’s local government has pledged to seek out and dismantle the production facilities. It’s an enormous challenge, however, as there is a ready appetite for illegal hooch costing just cents per litre among poorer Indians who simply cannot afford legitimate products.

The International Spirits and Wine Association of India estimated that out of around five billion litres of alcohol drunk every year in the country, around 40 per cent comes from illicit sources. Tougher penalties for those involved in the trade have been introduced in some states, including the death penalty, but according to sources have driven the trade underground.

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