114 Succumb to Alcohol Poisoning in Assam, India
Last week, an estimated 114 people succumbed to alcohol poisoning in the Golaghat and Jorhat districts in India’s Northeastern state of Assam. The majority of the individuals poisoned were tea estate workers in the two districts. The poisoning was reportedly caused by the consumption of illegally produced and procured country liquor named Hooch.
The incident in Assam is the second mass poisoning tragedy to hit India this month. It follows the Hooch poisoning disaster in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand which claimed 80 lives in the week of Feb. 11.
The state police found that batches of illicit Hooch, consumed in Golaghat and Jorhat districts, were laced with methyl alcohol in attempts to boost the liquor’s potency. Also known as wood alcohol or methanol, methyl alcohol is predominantly used as antifreeze, industrial solvent, and fuel. The chemical is widely available in India for prices as low as Rs. 22 (31 cents) per liter (33.81 oz). Highly toxic for humans, consumption of 10 ml (0.34 oz) of methanol can cause blindness and intake of over 30 ml (1.01 oz) can be fatal.
The first incidents of poisoning were reported on Thursday, Feb. 21. Four female tea estate workers were admitted to the Halmira Tea Estate Hospital in Golaghat. Following them, over 150 people were hospitalized in Assam’s two districts. The individuals poisoned complained of severe abdominal pain, blurry vision, and acute headaches.
To investigate the mass poisoning, Chief Minister of Assam, Sabananda Sonowal, has set up a one-person inquiry commission. Furthermore, after meeting the patients in Jorhat Medical College Hospital, Chief Minister Sonawal announced a state-funded ex-gratia payment of Rs. 2 lakhs ($2816) to the families of the deceased and Rs 50,000 ($704) to all patients hospitalized in connection to the mass poisoning tragedy.
The additional director general of police, law, and order, Mukesh Agarwal, stated that the police has detained 10 individuals in connection to the mass poisoning, and are currently interrogating several others involved in the tainted liquor’s supply chain. During the ongoing investigation, the police discovered that five distributors of the illicit liquor also died in the incident.
The market for illicit liquor in India is vast today. In fact, a senior social scientist at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), H.K. Sharma, claimed “We can safely state that 25 to 35 percent of the total liquor production in India is being done under these moonshine industries,”
Illegal alcohol is usually brewed in the rural parts of India and is later smuggled into cities where it is reportedly sold for about 10 cents a glass. The individuals from lower income groups prefer to buy the country liquor since they cannot afford the legally sold alcohol, which is almost 3 times the price and is taxed heavily with government excise duty.
All major cases of mass alcohol poisoning in India from 1978, in Dhanbad, to Assam 2019 seem to follow a standard pattern. The affected demographic is usually the low-income communities of fishermen, day laborers, inhabitants of slums, tea planters or rickshaw pullers.
However, a realistic solution to end these incidents of mass alcohol poisoning has yet to be found. One way might be to reduce the excise duty charged on legally distributed alcohol to make it more affordable overall. On the other hand, such a move would decrease government tax revenue collected and, more importantly, may promote an overall increase in alcohol consumption in the country.
Some maintain that the lack of national alcohol policy is responsible for the Hooch poisoning disasters in India. “Minimum liability on authorities serving alcohol” and the shortfall of a “strong bottom-up law in the center” drives “a deadly market of poison at work.”
Another potential solution to mass alcohol poisoning has been an overall prohibition on alcohol sales by the state governments. However, its effectiveness is questioned by “parallel production and sale of illicit and cheap liquor” in India. A recent piece by the Economic and Political Weekly suggests that “To expect that alcohol should not be imbibed is an unrealistic expectation and wisdom lies in ensuring that quality control and regulations are implemented.”