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Bootleg liquor deaths stir prohibition debate in India

Two Indian men drink outside a state-sanctioned liquor shop in Allahabad, India, on Dec. 15, 2011. Two-thirds of the alcohol consumed in the country is illegal hooch made in remote villages or undocumented liquor smuggled in, according to The Lancet medical journal.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP/Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

The deaths of 162 people poisoned by adulterated "hooch" in a village in West Bengal has set off a national debate about alcohol in India.

Police say that two-thirds of the alcohol sold in the country is illegal, most of it made by bootleggers who work on a ratio of one litre of pure alcohol, diluted with theoretically harmless additives, to produce 1,000 litres of "country liquor" as it is known. In 2008, an estimated 220 million nine-litre cases of bootleg booze were consumed, according to police estimates, much of it in rural areas where it is distributed by a wide network of sellers who bribe police. The liquor is sold in small plastic pouches for as little as 10 rupees, or 2 cents.

In Sangrampur village on Tuesday night, the majority of men settled into "hooch dens" around nightfall, as was their usual practice; within hours, they were dead and Sangrampur a "village of widows", in the words of the Mumbai Mirror. The bootlegged liquor the men consumed appears to have been laced with methanol.

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Police have arrested 10 liquor sellers; the bootleg business in the area is reported to be run by a "liquor don" who goes by the name Khoda Badsha, or The Lame King, who is said to be on the run.

Several Indian states are "dry", including Gujarat, the home of Mahatma Gandhi, who was a fierce opponent of alcohol consumption, and Maharashtra, were domestic violence cases dropped by 35 per cent after prohibition was introduced. But the official ban on alcohol in reality has little effect except to drive up bootleg prices.

Nationally, government statistics show that a fifth of hospital admissions are alcohol related.

"Country liquor" is made in barrels from fermented starches; the lethal methanol can be either an accidental byproduct of this process or a deliberate additive that is thought to add "potency" but is toxic.

While this is the largest such poisoning incident in recent years, there are almost-daily reports of village deaths from toxic alcohol; police tests have found bootleggers using everything from ammonium chloride to battery acid to add "kick" to their product.

More than 300 residents of Sangrampur are still in hospital, with 50 listed in critical condition.

Most of those who died in Sangrampur were the village's poorest residents – vegetable sellers and rickshaw-pullers and construction labourers – whose families could not come up with money to pay to transport them to hospital. Pro-prohibition organizations point out that alcohol expenditure is often the highest expenditure item in rural family budgets.

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