An investigation is underway after at least 84 people died and around 200 others hospitalized from drinking toxic bootleg liquor in recent days in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, a state government minister said Saturday.
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The incident took place at the Halmira Tea Estate in Assam’s Golaghat district after tea estate workers drank a locally brewed liquor called ‘sulai’ made of ethyl alcohol and jaggery, a type of cane sugar.
"Every 10 minutes we are getting reports of casualties from different places. So far about 200 people are in hospital with many of them [in] critical [condition]," Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told Reuters. "Doctors from nearby districts and other medical colleges have been rushed in to deal with the crisis."
So far, police arrested 12 people in connection with the production and distribution of the bootleg alcohol in Assam, a practice local politicians say is widespread and unruly in the area's tea estates, where it is commonly drunk by poorly-paid workers after grueling labor.
Many who drank the alcohol were tea plantation workers who had just received their weekly wages, according to another state government official. A number of women were among the casualties. Dilip Rajbnonshi, a doctor at the government hospital in Golaghat, said the deaths were due to "spurious country liquor."
Less than two weeks ago, more than 100 people died from drinking tainted alcohol in two northern Indian states, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. The death tolls from the two recent incidents are believed to be the deadliest since a similar case killed 172 in West Bengal in 2011.
This is far from unusual in the region. Deaths from illegally produced alcohol, known locally as hooch or country liquor, are common in India where many cannot afford legal, branded spirits.
"I asked some of the patients why they consume liquor almost every day and they said after a hard day's work in the plantations they drink to relieve stress and tiredness," health minister Sarma said.
Mrinal Saikia, a local lawmaker from the Bharatiya Janata Party - which hold power of the federal and Assam state governments - said alcohol, often laced with cattle feed and battery acid, is being supplied "in gallons" to tea plantation workers.
"This is a big business in areas surrounding tea gardens where people set up illegal distilleries to make country liquor," he said.