Toxic alcohol kills 54 in India – but the reason people drink it is heartbreaking

A man stands next to piles of wood arranged for the mass cremation of people who died after drinking illegally brewed liquor in the Kallakurichi district in India (Picture: AP)

An illegal batch of toxic alcohol has killed 54 people in India – and there are fears the death toll could rise.

Hundreds of people fell ill this week after consuming poisonous liquor in a village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, around 150 miles from Chennai.

More than 100 people are still sick in hospital, while almost 200 others have been treated for vomiting, stomach aches and diarrhoea since Wednesday.

The village of Karunapuram in the Kallakurichi district has been struck down by an unthinkable tragedy that raises so many questions.

How did this happen? Why are people drinking this toxic alcohol? And how did they get hold of it?

We take a look at the heartbreaking circumstances behind the drink which has brutally wiped out so many.

Why have 54 people died after drinking the liquor?

A heartbroken relative weeps for their lost loved one (Picture: AFP)

The alcohol in question was locally brewed and laced with poisonous methanol in an attempt to increase potency, according to Tamil Nadu state chief minister M.K. Stalin.

But when liquor is spiked with methanol, it can cause blindness, liver damage and death.

Within hours of first drinking the alcohol after it was wrongly put on sale on Tuesday morning, 37 people were dead. 

Some of those went blind and were rushed to hospital, while others collapsed in the street and died almost immediately.

Why are people drinking toxic illegal alcohol?

Family members take part in a funeral procession of victims who died after consuming the toxic alcohol (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, hundreds of people die in India every year from cheap alcohol, which is made in illicit backstreet distilleries. But this specific incident is the worst in years.

Most of the people in villages such as Karunapuram are very poor, so they turn to illegally sold liquor because it’s far cheaper than buying branded spirits in legitimate shops. 

In a nutshell, it’s considered normal behaviour for men to turn to drink as a coping mechanism and alcohol is significantly less expensive on the black market

Local councillor, Palraj, told the Indian Express that poor labourers in the district regularly buy the liquor in plastic bags for 60 rupees (57p) and drink it before work.

‘The men work just to drink, and the women run the family’, motorised rickshaw driver Shankar, who lives on a street where 23 people died, said.

According to the paper, the peak sale on this occasion was between 5am and 7am, when conservancy and headload workers start their day and ‘consume the liquor almost like morning tea’.

Bodies of a married are brought for cremation (Picture: AP/R. Parthibhan)

Who sold the alcohol – and will they face consequences?

Seven people have been arrested in connection with the sale of the fatally poisonous alcohol, said M.S. Prasanth, a senior district official. 

He added that follow-up action was being taken against liquor sellers and brewers in the district.

A 48-year-old man who allegedly sold the spurious liquor which killed most of the victims is among those arrested, according to local reports. 

He’s said to have been selling booze in the area for 20 years and is well-known in the area. 

The heartbreak in the Kallakurichi district is unfathomable (Picture: AP)

Despite public demands for a crackdown on illegal vendors, deaths from the alcohol, often called country liquor, continue.

The state government said it was taking steps to identify those involved in production of the methanol used.

Selling and consuming liquor is prohibited in several other parts of India, which only serves to increase sales on the black market.

Poisonous alcohol killed at least 27 people in one sitting in the eastern Indian state of Bihar last year. At least 42 people died in Gujarat in 2022.

The deaths of people in this village will only raise public pressure on government to crack down on the production of illegal alcohol, but for too many, it’s already too late.

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