At least 45 tea workers have died after drinking toxic alcohol in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, while more than 200 are currently being treated in hospital. The fatalities were reported on Sunday, just days after the deaths of approximately 100 other people in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand due to the consumption of toxic alcohol, taking the death toll beyond 145. This number of deaths is believed to be the highest since a 2011 case in West Bengal, where more than 170 people died after ingesting bootleg alcohol. Ten people have been arrested so far over the bootleg drink.
Pushkar Singh, Superintendent of Police in the Golaghat district, told the BBC Hindi service that police had found the home where the toxic liquor was made and had recovered 1.5 litres. Doctors at the hospitals where victims were being treated were baffled by the ingredients of the toxic alcohol which has caused organ failure. Dr Ratul Bordoloi, joint director of Golaghat’s health department told AFP news agency that “people came to the hospital with severe vomiting, extreme chest pain and breathlessness.” The victims, including many women, all worked at local tea plantations in the region. Samples of the liquor have been sent to a forensic laboratory and are awaiting an official report, according to Mukesh Agarwala, additional director general of the state police.
Hundreds of people die each year in India from tainted liquor, which is much cheaper than branded spirits and is very common in rural parts of India. Bootleggers often add methanol to the mixture to increase its strength, a highly toxic substance which is sometimes used as an anti-freeze. Ingestion, even in small quantities, can cause blindness, liver damage and death. According to the International Spirits and Wine Association of India, of the estimated 5 billion litres of alcohol consumed in India each year, around 40% is illegally produced.
In addition to the arrests made so far, two excise department officials were also suspended for failing to take adequate precautions over the sale of alcohol. Many states have implemented or pushed for prohibition, which according to critics further increases the unsupervised manufacture and sale of bootleg alcohol. This could be seen in the 2016 ban on alcohol in one of India’s poorest states, Bihar. Just months after the prohibition took effect, 16 people died after consuming toxic liquor. Staff of a local police station were suspended for ‘dereliction of duty’ as a result.
Previous cases have therefore shown that prohibition does not stop the circulation of cheap, toxic alcohol – on the contrary the unregulated and illegal production is further encouraged to supply the demand. In particular, it seems that people in poorer states are the most vulnerable, as they have limited income to spend on alcohol and will therefore be more inclined to choose the cheapest alternatives, which can be toxic.
There are two ways that this problem can be tackled: Firstly, there must be stricter punishment for those responsible for producing toxic alcohol in order to deter others from doing so. Secondly, there must be stricter regulations regarding the sale of alcohol, particularly in rural areas where this is the biggest issue. The cost of doing so in such areas would likely be high, a probable reason why many deaths have already occurred over a number of years. However, despite costs states must take stricter action to prevent deaths amongst the most vulnerable in society.
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