While many of us take the alcohol we drink for granted as safe, more than 100 people in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh (UP) were not so privileged.
On February 9, scores died in adjoining districts of Uttarakhand and UP after consuming spurious liquor, commonly known as ‘hooch’.
What is hooch?
Hooch, moonshine, and narangi are slang terms for alcohol brewed in unregulated sheds or shanties. These concoctions usually contain jaggery, yeast, fruits, like orange and berries, water, and methanol. They look and smell like drinking alcohol (ethanol) but are much more toxic, if ingested.
The Quint reports that bootleggers add organic waste, dead lizards and rodents, and battery acid among other toxic substances to the alcohol to make it more potent. As they make it at home, away from scrutiny, the quantities of ingredients are unreliable, making the liquid even more dangerous.
This kind of alcohol is extremely cheap (between Rs 10 and Rs 30) and easily available. That makes it an attractive option for those who like to drink but can’t afford or access legal alcohol. It comes with a number of health risks, like blurred speech, difficulty breathing, botulism, and even death.
Deaths in north India
After the two states began recording deaths over the weekend, they found 37 dead in UP’s Saharanpur district and 11 in Kushinagar; Uttarakhand’s Haridwar district saw 31 deaths in Balupur and neighbouring villages. A joint state investigation is underway; however, reports say the hooch ingested in Saharanpur and Haridwar appears to be from the same source.
The Balupur victims drank the liquor after “tehravin”, a mourning ceremony on the 13th day following a death. Authorities believe an attendee carried 30-odd packets of the liquor back home to UP, where the poisoning spread.
Saharanpur district magistrate Alok Pandey said his residents felt ill after returning from Balupur, but authorities didn’t admit all to hospital, as bad weather conditions made travel difficult. Over the last four days, 116 people from Saharanpur, Kushinagar and Haridwar have died.
The UP Police has already arrested over 3,000 people in one of the largest crackdowns on bootleg liquor. The state government said on Twitter, “Police superintendents are instructed to take strict action against people connected to the illegal liquor business.”
The government also suspended three Circle Officers in Saharanpur and Kushinagar. Meanwhile, authorities in Uttarakhand have registered 49 cases.
UP asked for a special investigation team (SIT) to carry out a detailed probe into the deaths, after a “blame game” between the BJP and Samajwadi Party (SP) ensued. It has instructed the SIT to factor in conspiracies and previous incidents, and submit a report in 10 days with solutions and recommendations, says HuffPost.
Both states have also announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh for the victims’ families.
UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath claimed SP has a role to play. “In the past, too, such type of mischievous acts by SP leaders had come to the fore. In Azamgarh, Hardoi, Kanpur and Barabanki, SP leaders were found involved in hooch tragedies. We can’t deny a conspiracy this time too,” he said.
In response, Mayawati, former UP CM and leader of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party, suggested that both states’ excise ministers step down until investigations are complete, because local bootleggers managed to sell this dangerous liquor “under their noses”. SP chief Akhilesh Yadav said, “Because of corruption, BJP officials have neither the intention nor the policies to control illegal liquor.”
ANI reports that locals in Saharanpur protested against the sale and consumption of illegal alcohol.
Previous hooch-related deaths
While this case is shocking, it is definitely not the first in India. HuffPost says scores of similar incidents across the country have claimed close to 1,000 lives.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, 308 people in Bengaluru, Karnataka, and 200 in Cuttack, Odisha, died after consuming spurious liquor. In Cuttack, 600 more were hospitalised because of it. Between 2008 and 2009, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu saw a wave of toxic alcohol-related deaths, with over 300 victims. More recently, in 2011, after 156 people died from drinking hooch in West Bengal, the state shut 10 liquor shops.
In 2018, Yogi Adityanath’s administration implemented a ban on liquor in Mathura. In 2017, he ordered a full ban on liquor and meat in two of the state’s historical cities, Vrindavan and Barsana. UP also closed down liquor stores along highways, educational institutions, religious areas, as well as populated hubs.
Although similar statewide action not been taken yet, it’s worth mentioning that banning alcohol or steeply raising its price to discourage consumption will only allow the production and sale of bootleg liquor to thrive. After all, bans don’t cure people of their desire to drink—they only make doing so much more dangerous.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius.