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Deadly methanol-laced bootleg liquor kills dozens in South India

Family members take part in a funeral procession for victims who died after consuming toxic alcohol in Kallakurichi district of India's Tamil Nadu state on Thursday.
R. Satish Babu
AFP via Getty Images
Family members take part in a funeral procession for victims who died after consuming toxic alcohol in Kallakurichi district of India's Tamil Nadu state on Thursday.

CHENNAI, India — Fifty-five-year-old Ponnusamy Rajendran was a day laborer who unloaded bags of potatoes, onions and tomatoes at the local wholesale market in the southern Indian town of Kallakuruchi. Last Wednesday, after finishing his work at dawn, he bought three 50-cent plastic pouches of bootleg alcohol to feed his addiction. With his daily earnings of less than $4, he couldn't afford anything more expensive.

“He had a limited budget with his wages and after sharing half his earnings with his family, he calculated and found it profitable to buy fake alcohol,” says Kaliappan Gnanavel, Rajendran’s son-in-law, speaking in the Indian language of Tamil in a phone interview with NPR.

On Thursday, Rajendran died in a government hospital in Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India. He was among 56 people who died after consuming methanol-laced liquor produced in the Kallakurichi district.

Several regions in India have seen mass casualties due to consumption of tainted alcohol. States including Assam, Punjab, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu have reported hundreds of deaths from bootleg alcohol, due to its lower cost and availability, despite prohibition laws.

Producers of spurious liquor add toxic methanol to increase alcohol content inexpensively, according to a study. Methanol makes the body produce too much acid that the kidneys can't remove. It also impairs vision.

" 'I don’t know what is happening,' my father had said, 'I cannot see anyone’s face clearly,' " said Rajendran's daughter, Karpagam Gnanavel. She remembers her father crying that morning after drinking. “Then a neighbor stopped by to announce that some people were dying in the area after consuming alcohol," she said in Tamil.

Beginning Wednesday morning, 215 individuals were admitted to four different hospitals with symptoms of vomiting, stomach aches, and diarrhea, according to a doctor familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly. Currently, four of them remain in critical condition.

The government of Tamil Nadu responded to the deaths by appointing M.S. Prasanth, previously an official responsible for rural development, as the new top official in Kallakurichi.

Several police officers too were suspended, according to news reports. Kaliappan Gnanavel alleges that spurious liquor has been sold for many years in the area with the police’s knowledge.

One of the first things the new district official Prasanth did was get more doctors from neighboring districts to treat the rising number of patients.

Specialist doctors from all around and the medicine stocks and antidote for the methanol poisoning were moved to Kalakurichi,” says Prasanth.

To support the medical staff in four hospitals, 56 doctors were brought in from surrounding districts.

Despite these efforts, a quarter of the hospitalized patients didn’t survive.

It is a complicated socio-economic problem,” says Prasanth. “There is a demand due to poverty and some of these people are choosing lower priced drinks. We have to cut down the supply and do some long-term interventions in the area.”

On Wednesday, with his father-in-law in the hospital and the death count rising, Kaliappan Gnanavel and about 50 other villagers protested at the local police station, demanding the arrest of the illegal liquor producers.

So far seven of the people involved in the production of illegal liquor have been arrested, Prasanth says.

For now, the Tamil Nadu government has announced compensation of $12,200 for the families of those who lost their lives in this tragedy.

Karpagam Gnanavel confirms that her family received compensation for her father’s death. But she’s angry that the government didn’t act sooner.

"We have battled with the bootleggers to halt the sale of this substance, but instead, they question us, 'Why do you allow him to come and purchase from us? Keep him at home,' ” Karpagam says. “This is a major crisis and it must never occur again.”

Anupama Chandrasekaran is an audio and print journalist based in Chennai, Southern India. She has previously reported for Reuters out of New York City. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC and Deutsche Welle. She works closely with community radio journalists in India. You can find her on X @indiantimbre.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Anupama Chandrasekaran
[Copyright 2024 NPR]