India Bootleg Booze Deaths Hit 170, 12 Arrested

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DIAMOND HARBOUR, India -- Police raided illegal distilleries and dismantling dozens of liquor dens Friday across an eastern Indian district where 170 people have died after drinking bootleg alcohol that had been mixed with toxic methanol.

Twelve people have been arrested in connection with making and distributing the cheap, illicit liquor, but police were still searching for the kingpin of the operation, District Magistrate Naraya Swarup Nigam said.

Many of the victims – day laborers, street hawkers, rickshaw drivers – had gathered after work Tuesday to drink the illicit booze they bought for 10 rupees (20 cents) a half liter, less than a third the price of legal alcohol.

They later began vomiting, suffering piercing headaches and frothing at the mouth, and by Friday afternoon 170 people had died, according to West Bengal state's health director, Dr. Shyamapada Basak.

At least 90 others, some in critical condition, were being treated at a hospital in Diamond Harbour village, where doctors and other medical staff worked overtime to help. Dozens more patients were taken to hospitals in the nearby state capital, Kolkata.

Dead bodies lay on the ground outside the Diamond Harbour hospital's mortuary, while ill patients on intravenous drips waited in corridors and on staircases for treatment.

Nearly every home has at least one victim in the village of Sangrampur, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Kolkata, the city formerly known as Calcutta.

"My husband, after returning from the liquor den, complained of severe stomach pain and headache. He started vomiting and frothing at the mouth. We took him to the hospital, but he he died after a severe convulsion," said Jayeda Bibi.

Women who had become widows overnight said they could not find enough villagers to help cremate or bury bodies.

"Whatever money my husband earned was spent on liquor," Sachi Bar said. "He never listened to my warning that liquor will kill him one day."

Angry villagers have ransacked some booze shacks, and police were tearing down others. West Bengal state's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordered an inquiry, promised a crackdown and pledged 200,000 rupees ($3,600) compensation for each of the victims' families.

Forensic investigators were working on determining the exact components of the toxic liquor. Bootleg liquor sometimes is mixed with cheap, toxic chemicals to increase potency and profit, but can have deadly consequences.

Illegal liquor operations flourish in India's urban slums and among the rural poor who can't afford the alcohol at state-sanctioned shops.

Despite religious and cultural taboos against drinking among Indians, 5 percent – roughly 60 million people – are alcoholics. Two-thirds of the alcohol consumed in the country is illegal homemade hooch or undocumented liquor smuggled in, according to The Lancet medical journal.

One or two people die each week from bad bootleg booze in India, according to the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, which fights alcohol-related problems. In 2009, at least 112 people died from a toxic brew in western India.

Drinking alcohol contains ethanol, whereas highly toxic methanol – a clear liquid that can be used as fuel, solvent or antifreeze – can induce comas and cause blindness and is deadly in high doses.

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Associated Press writer Manik Banerjee contributed to this report.

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