- - Thursday, December 15, 2011

KOLKATA — A cluster of villages in eastern India have been devastated by the deaths of 143 people who drank bootleg liquor that contained toxic methanol and was sold in small shops.

Hundreds of others in Sangrampur and nearby villages in West Bengal state have been sickened by the illegal, homemade booze and have crowded local hospitals, officials said. More deaths are possible.

“We have several hundred admitted in hospitals now,” hospital official N.S. Nigam told The Washington Times. “It is a huge tragedy.”

Senior police official Surajit Kar Purakayastha said at least seven bootleggers had been arrested.

Police were searching two other suspects believed to have led the bottlegging operations that supplied the spurious spirits to the poor villagers Tuesday night.

Many of those who had fallen ill since Wednesday from drinking the cheap, toxic alcohol were being treated in staircases and on the floor because of a lack of rooms and beds in the small, ill-equipped hospitals, officials said.

Widows and children who had lost their fathers were wailing in the village and at the gates of the hospitals, where men were dying every hour.

Most of the dead were day laborers and rickshaw pullers who worked in the villages, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Kolkata.

A district health officer said that methanol, a toxic form of alcohol, had been found in many of the victims who had drunk the bootleg booze, popularly known as “chepti.”

The patients’ symptoms include severe stomachache, vomiting, body pains and dysentery, the health officer said.

Illicit liquor-making activities flourish in the slums of urban India and among the rural poor who can’t afford alcohol at state-sanctioned shops, the Associated Press reported.

The hooch, often mixed with cheap chemicals to increase potency and profit, causes illness and death sometimes — and occasionally mass carnage, the AP reported.

“Consumption of illicit liquor is a social disease and this has to be eradicated,” said Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal state.

The West Bengal government, led by Ms. Banerjee, has ordered the Criminal Investigating Department to investigate the mass poisoning of the villagers and the bootlegging operation.

The government also announced it would provide $4,000 to compensate each family of the dead.

Meanwhile, villagers and police officer demolished some liquor-selling shops.

The bootleg liquor catastrophe is the second major tragedy to hit West Bengal in the past few days, following last Friday’s fire at a private hospital that killed at least 92 people — most of them patients who had been abandoned by hospital staffers. Six prominent Indian businessmen who own the hospital have been arrested in that case.

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