Toxic Moonshine Leaves at Least 53 Dead in India’s South

The death toll from tainted liquor in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu has reached 53, officials say, and is likely to rise, with many others in critical condition. The victims were sickened by drinking a bootleg brew with a high content of methanol.

Rajat Chaturvedi, the police superintendent in the Kallakurichi District, where the past week’s deaths have occurred, said that 98 people had been hospitalized. “The dead and hospitalized people are mostly daily wage laborers,” he said.

The first death, from drinking local brew sold in small pouches for about 50 cents, Mr. Chaturvedi said, was reported on Wednesday. The village of Karunapuram was the worst hit, with more than a dozen victims receiving last rites in a mass cremation on Thursday.

Consumption of tainted alcohol has caused several mass-casualty events across India in recent years. In some states that prohibit alcohol, people turn to smuggled or unregulated liquor. Elsewhere, villagers choose the bootleg product because of its lower price.

  • In 2019, at least 150 people died in two districts of the northeastern state of Assam from drinking bootleg alcohol. Weeks earlier, 100 people had died in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

  • In August 2020, at least 120 people died in Punjab from drinking toxic local brew, with 92 of the deaths in just one district.

  • In December 2022, at least 70 people died from drinking tainted alcohol in the eastern state of Bihar. Bihar has banned the sale and consumption of alcohol since 2016, but people consume illegal smuggled alcohol or cross the border into Nepal for cheap local brew.

Last year, at least 22 people died from consuming similar toxic local brew in two other districts of Tamil Nadu. The latest mass casualty has put the state’s government under pressure from opposition leaders as well as from the state’s high court. Opposition lawmakers, who arrived at the assembly dressed in black, called for the resignation of Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, M.K. Stalin.

Mr. Stalin announced an investigation headed by a retired judge and ordered the police across the state to crack down on the homemade liquor trade.

The man accused of making this week’s batch of poisonous alcohol has been arrested, along with his wife and at least one other person, according to police officials. The Kallakurichi District’s top civilian official has been transferred, while several police officers have been suspended.

Local residents have said that the police were complicit, taking a cut from the bootlegger’s peddlers who brought the brew to the villages, according to the Indian news outlet The News Minute.

“We cannot say direct involvement of local police, but due to their lack of action, police people were suspended, right from constable to deputy superintendent of police,” said Mr. Chaturvedi, who took charge of the district’s police force after the tragedy.

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