Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 12:19 UK

India's toxic liquor tragedy

A man who consumed illicitly brewed liquor at a hospital in Ahmadabad
Most of the victims are poor slum dwellers

More than 100 people have died in India's Gujarat state after drinking toxic illegal alcohol. Why did this tragedy happen?

The story of India's latest toxic liquor tragedy begins in Mehmadabad, a semi-industrial suburb in western Gujarat state.

Barely 25km from the state capital, Ahmadabad, Mehmadabad is home to at least a couple of illegal breweries who supply most of the cheap liquor sold in the capital.

Set on the banks of Sabarmati river, these open air breweries are dotted with fire-burnt vats which are used to make the liquor, say journalists who have been to the place.

Normally, illegally brewed or "country-made liquor", as it is called in India, is made with jaggery [unrefined palm sugar], alum and aluminium chloride. After brewing, some flavour is added to the liquor.

Brewery owners usually spike the liquor with ethyl alcohol to give it a kick. Things begin going wrong when they add methyl alcohol - a potent industrial alcohol- which can easily lead to death if consumed.

Open secret

The police in Gujarat say they have detained the owner of one such brewery in Mehmadabad, who has allegedly admitted to spiking his brew with the methyl alcohol, a sweet, colourless and highly poisonous chemical.

They suspect that the brewery owner bought the alcohol illegally from a chemical factory in the area.

A man who consumed illicitly brewed liquor at a hospital in Ahmadabad
More than 100 people who consumed the liquor are still in hospital

Illegal liquor - commonly called desi daroo or country made liquor in Gujarat - is usually sold in 200ml plastic pouches for 10 rupees (20 cents) each. The majority of the consumers are poor, daily wage workers.

The pouches are transported into Ahmedabad by couriers on motorcycles and scooters. Sometimes they slip into the state capital carrying jerry cans containing the alcohol.

The liquor is then sold from shantytown shacks which dot the city.

It is an open secret, say local residents and journalists, that the police are on the take and collect "protection money" from these "dealers".

It is now clear that Gujarat's toxic liquor victims had imbibed liquor spiked with methyl alcohol and traces of an industrial spirit, leading to fits, vomiting and death.

Five days after the tragedy, journalists covering the tragedy in Gujarat say that people are continuing to drink the toxic liquor - the detained brewery owner has told the police that he had made some 400 litres of the poisonous brew.

'Part of life'

"Consumers of illegal liquor have been telling us from their hospital beds that they cannot work or sleep without having the brew. It is a part of their lives, they are addicted to it. They will keep drinking whatever illegal brew is available," a senior journalist in Gujarat told the BBC.

So much so that an illegal liquor dealer and his son died in their shack in Majoor Gam area in Ahmedabad after they drank the poisonous brew to prove to sceptical consumers that the drink was safe.

Some find that it ironic that the tragedy had to happen in India's only state where selling liquor is prohibited. But it is also an open secret that prohibition has led to a flourishing and efficient underground liquor industry where all brands are sold at a premium.

Relatives of a man who consumed illicitly brewed liquor at a hospital in Ahmadabad
More than 400 people have died in Gujarat after drinking illegal liquor since 1977

Apart from ordering a judicial probe into the incident, the Gujarat government has been evasive about the tragedy.

"Whatever has happened is tragic, and we are shocked at the deaths. Having said that, this tragedy has happened in the past and I believe this is more due to poverty-led deprivation and sociological problems," Jay Narayan Vyas, a spokesman of the government told a TV channel.

According to one estimate, some 440 people have died after drinking illegal toxic liquor in Gujarat between 1977 and 1990.

But reports say this tragedy was the first such incident in the last decade.

Liquor deaths are not uncommon in a country where illegal brewing rackets exist in a number of states, often with the police looking the other way - there have been similar tragedies in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Rajasthan in recent years.

In all the cases, illegally brewed liquor had been spiked with methyl alcohol and other industrial spirits.

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