A poi­sonous mix in In­dia

Crush­ing poverty, weak po­lice and tainted al­co­hol lead to deaths

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Shashank Ben­gali shashank. ben­gali @ latimes. com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Parth M. N. con­trib­uted to this re­port.

MUM­BAI, In­dia — Mourn­ers gath­ered un­der an ash- col­ored sky Mon­day out­side Sathivel Na­gak­ounder’s one- room house, the women wail­ing and wip­ing their eyes with their saris. His body, wrapped in a snow- white shroud and wreathed in gar­lands, was car­ried through dirt lanes still soft from the morn­ing rain.

In the north­ern Mum­bai slum of Khar­odi, the peo­ple have lost count of the fu­neral pro­ces­sions. More than 100 peo­ple have died since last week af­ter drink­ing a toxic batch of home­made liquor, one of the worst such in­ci­dents in In­dia in re­cent years, with dozens more still hos­pi­tal­ized.

Of­fi­cials say the vic­tims suf­fered poi­son­ing by methanol, a cheap al­co­hol that boot­leg­gers add to pro­vide a kick, but which can be lethal in all but the small­est quan­ti­ties.

Na­gak­ounder, a mar­ried fa­ther of three, be­gan vom­it­ing blood last week af­ter vis­it­ing one of the many un­marked neigh­bor­hood stalls that sell the il­licit spir­its, fam­ily mem­bers said.

“We have never seen peo­ple get­ting sick like this be­fore,” said his brother, Shivraj Na­gak­ounder. “Al­most ev­ery­one who was hos­pi­tal­ized has died.”

The deaths have robbed fam­i­lies of their main bread­win­ners and cast a spotlight on the poi­sonous mix­ture of poverty, al­co­hol and weak law en­force­ment in In­dia’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods. In Khar­odi, the nom­i­nally illegal home­made liquor sells for as lit­tle as 15 cents for half a pint, sold by the glass or in clear plas­tic bags.

Dis­tilled in drums from a mix­ture of cane sugar and am­mo­nium chlo­ride — and laced with methanol, bat­tery acid or even crushed glass — the un­li­censed liquor is widely con­sumed by con­struc­tion work­ers, sewer clean­ers and other la­bor­ers who want a cheap, quick high af­ter hours of back­break­ing work.

The first cases in Khar­odi — a neigh­bor­hood of Hindu, Mus­lim and Chris­tian fam­i­lies at the edge of a boom­ing mid­dle- class sub­urb — sur­faced Thurs­day morn­ing. Na­gak­ounder, who made about $ 125 a month dig­ging trenches for a cell­phone com­pany, had vis­ited one of the lo­cal hooch ven­dors, known as ad­das, af­ter work with a friend, who also died.

“The body aches and you want some­thing to re­duce the pain,” said a fam­ily friend, Vediyap­pan Kaoundar, ex­plain­ing the mo­ti­va­tion to drink af­ter a pun­ish­ing day of work.

Taxes on al­co­hol are ex­tremely high in Mum­bai, In­dia’s f inan­cial cap­i­tal, mak­ing most le­gal booze un­af­ford­able for the lower classes. Tainted liquor have also caused mass deaths in many other In­dian cities.

This year, more than two dozen died in the north­ern city of Lucknow. The dead­li­est re­cent case of toxic moon­shine claimed the lives of 180 peo­ple in the south­ern states of Tamil Nadu and Kar­nataka in 2008.

Boot­leg­gers op­er­ate in plain sight of author­i­ties, whom many res­i­dents ac­cuse of ac­cept­ing bribes to al­low the trade to con­tinue. A po­lice sta­tion sits a few hun­dred yards from the neigh­bor­hood where Na­gak­ounder and oth­ers had pur­chased the deadly liquor. Some would carry the plas­tic bags into the streets and drink in the open, mix­ing the al­co­hol with a bit of Sprite.

“A busi­ness can­not be run with­out the per­mis­sion of lo­cal po­lice,” said Datta Jadhav, a re­tired po­lice in­spec­tor in Mum­bai. “All of­fi­cers in the area are aware if any­one is pro­duc­ing home­made liquor.”

Seven peo­ple sus­pected of boot­leg­ging have been ar­rested, and eight po­lice of­fi­cers and four state ex­cise tax of­fi­cials — who are re­spon­si­ble for grant­ing li­censes to liquor deal­ers — were sus­pended pend­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions, of­fi­cials said.

That of­fered lit­tle com­fort to the fam­ily mem­bers of vic­tims, who say author­i­ties have long known about the toll of illegal moon­shine on their com­mu­ni­ties.

“The al­co­hol should be banned al­to­gether,” said Shak­ila Ab­dur­rah­man, whose hus­band, a con­struc­tion worker, vis­ited the ad­das al­most ev­ery day af­ter work. He died over the week­end, leav­ing be­hind two daugh­ters and a son, she said.

“We had quar­rels at home about it,” she said, stand­ing in front of a war­ren of tin­walled shacks in Khar­odi as roost­ers walked about.

“If you lis­ten at night, there is bick­er­ing con­stantly in all the houses be­tween the hus­bands and wives about the drink­ing. But now he is dead, so what can I do?”

In a third- story ward at a nearby city- run hos­pi­tal, eight men lay in their beds Mon­day af­ter­noon, hav­ing been treated for methanol poi­son­ing but de­clared sta­ble. Viren­dra Sanani, a 45year- old pain­ter, said he had only one drink last week but checked into the hos­pi­tal af­ter sto­ries of poi­son­ing be­gan cir­cu­lat­ing and his wife and chil­dren de­manded it.

“I won’t think of drink­ing that any more,” he said. “But those who can’t af­ford more ex­pen­sive liquor will prob­a­bly con­tinue, even though they shouldn’t.”

Down a nar­row, muddy path in Khar­odi, two chil­dren proudly pointed out the house where they said po­lice of­fi­cers ar­rested two sus­pected hooch sellers, a hus­band and wife, in a dra­matic episode Sun­day. A ply­wood door, locked from the in­side, was em­bla­zoned with the im­age of Je­sus.

Rap­ping on the door, Sahil, a tou­sled- haired boy of no more than 8, said mat­terof- factly, “There’s still a lot of liquor in­side.”

Divyakant Solanki Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

REL­A­TIVES MOURN Raja Lu­draswami Har­jan, one of more than 100 peo­ple in Mum­bai, In­dia, who died af­ter con­sum­ing boot­leg liquor.

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