A handful of men sat huddled on wooden benches inside a shop in Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, drinking from diminutive bottles of a variety of alcohol manufactured nearby. The government-licensed outlet is a “theka desi sharab” — an Indian liquor store that sells indigenous booze, which is distinguished and sold apart from “foreign alcohol” such as whiskey, vodka, or rum.
“English liquor is strictly forbidden here,” read a sign on the wall in Hindi.
Rajesh Jaiswal runs a lunchroom inside the shop. He gestured to a bottle of liquor available for 65 rupees, or about $1, as one of the employees squatted on the floor to clean a freshly butchered chicken.
“Rich men are restaurant-types, and educated,” he told VICE News, smiling. “This is for the poor man.”
He was quick to note that the hooch in question was not to be confused with the tainted Indian moonshine that prompted a health scare earlier this week, when some 200 people in the area fell seriously ill after ingesting it on Sunday. The death toll had climbed to 41 by Friday.
A shopkeeper displays a bottle of legitimate Indian-distilled “country liquor.”
“This is the best brand,” Jaiswal offered reassuringly. It was indigenous “country liquor” — made from raw materials like sugarcane, rice, or coarse grains — but clearly labeled. “In the villages they have no licenses,” he said, referring to manufacturers of bootleg liquor, adding that their products are “made with excessive alcohol.”
The recent poisoning highlights a long-running problem within India, where unregulated moonshine is widely consumed. Almost 170 people died in southern India from drinking toxic rotgut in 2008, with another hundred-plus in the state of Gujarat perishing for the same reason the following year. Such reports are distressingly frequent: more than 120 people died from tainted alcohol in West Bengal state in 2011, and Uttar Pradesh saw dozens of drinking casualties in 2013, with some victims going blind.
‘They consider the liquor that works the quickest to be the best.’
Under Indian law, only authorized distilleries can produce beer, Western-style distilled beverages, and country liquor. Because the latter is significantly cheaper to make, it is particularly appealing to poor Indians who want a drink. Illicit alcohol produced without the proper licensing, materials, or supervision is even cheaper — the bootleg liquor behind the recent tragedy was sold in packets for 20 rupees (about 30 cents) each.
Watchdogs and analysts charge that local corruption sustains a booming moonshine industry, which essentially operates in the open despite its illegality. In exchange for bribes, police and excise authorities turn a blind eye to the activities of bootleg liquor barons.
“Without all their ignorance, nothing is possible,” Surendra Rajput, a political and social analyst based in Lucknow, told VICE News. “They all know the small-time dealers and manufacturers.”
An Indian policeman displays packets of illegal bootleg liquor seized from a village southeast of Lucknow. (Photo via AP/Rajesh Kumar Singh)
A typical variety of moonshine in northern India might be fermented from molasses or mahua, a type of flower, and spiked with additives like ammonium chloride, lye, or even battery acid to increase strength or speed fermentation.
“When they want to increase the alcohol content and potency, they might add sedatives, urea, oxytocin, or methyl alcohol,” Rajput said.
These materials are widely accessible in India despite their danger to humans. Urea, a nitrogen-containing compound in urine, is the most common fertilizer in rural areas. The hormone oxytocin, which is misused to spur milk production in cows and buffalo, is readily found in local markets despite being banned. Methyl alcohol, or methanol, is used in industrial products like antifreeze and fuel.
Bhasker Tripathi, a reporter with the rural newspaper Gaon Connection who has seen these rustic distilleries, believes that the lethality of their spurious liquor might sometimes result from a confusion between highly toxic methanol and ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which is typical of alcoholic beverages. But village distillers might also include methanol because it’s cheaper than ethanol — and because it gives the beverage more of a punch.
“They consider the liquor that works the quickest to be the best,” Tripathi told VICE News. Poor villagers have little to spend, he said, “and they just need a liquid to help them forget all their miseries.”
Despite the series of deaths over the years, most of the people who purchase this liquor have little knowledge that what they are buying might essentially be poison, said Dr. Kauser Usman, head of the trauma center at King George’s Medical University in Lucknow, where the most severely affected victims in this latest incident were brought.
“A lot of them are quite used to drinking this alcohol,” he told VICE News, referring to methanol varieties. “They can’t afford ethyl-based alcohol.”
Large numbers of deaths have a knack for prompting regional governments to action, and local administrators have responded quickly to the recent poisoning. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh suspended several excise officers for their lack of oversight, and ordered an investigation. The manufacturer of the moonshine, who locals say had a known history in the business,was promptly arrested.
Debashish Panda, the principal home secretary for Uttar Pradesh, told VICE News that police had as of Thursday raided 12,500 sites, seized 76,000 liters of illicit liquor, and arrested 2,900 people. “We are trying to crack down through the police,” he said.
But similar flurries of activity followed other mass poisonings with little impact on the viability of bootleg liquor. Locals opined to VICE News that the fact that police officers were able to seize so much liquor and raid so many places within the last few days probably reflects their foreknowledge of the illicit distilling rather than investigative prowess.
Devastated relatives of the deceased have burned down the distillery that produced and sold the illicit liquor. A young man also attempted to set himself on fire in front of the chief minister’s office on Wednesday, charging the state government’s negligence for being responsible for the tragedy, and demanding its removal.
Meanwhile, some victims who survived the poisoning face a magnitude of health concerns, including paralysis and permanent blindness.
“The tragedy with such victims is that they hardly get public sympathy,” said Sudhir Panwar, a member of the Uttar Pradesh state planning commission and president of Kisan Jagriti Manch, a group that negotiates with the government on farmer-related issues. “Officials crack down because it’s in the news. Afterwards, nobody cares.”
Follow Sonia Paul on Twitter: @sonipaul
This piece originally published on January 17, 2015, on Vice News.