‘Bootleg alcohol’ leaves village of widows
Sangrampur, India - They are already calling it the “widow village”.
In the space of just a few short days, the close-knit community of Sangrampur in eastern India - along with a number of smaller surrounding villages - has been devastated by a case of mass poisoning from toxic, home-brewed alcohol.
So far 170 people have died, almost exclusively men, most of whom were the sole bread-winners in families that were already struggling with life on the poverty line.
“At the moment, it feels like all roads lead to the burial ground,” said Abdul Mannan Gayen, who lost two sons and has a third battling for his life in hospital along with more than 100 other critically ill villagers.
In India, disasters - fires, flood, earthquakes, epidemics - often take their heaviest toll among the poor, who live in the most vulnerable, densely packed communities in poorly constructed, makeshift homes.
But the tragedy that struck the district around Sangrampur in West Bengal state was particularly narrow and devastating in its focus.
Illegal, home-distilled liquor, or “hooch”, has been brewed in such places for decades, catering to an impoverished male clientele of labourers, farmers and rickshaw drivers unable to afford branded alcohol.
On Tuesday evening, the half-litre measures of hooch - costing as little as 10 US cents - were drunk and shared as they are most evenings.
By Wednesday morning, local hospitals were already struggling with the chronically sick and dying and the next few days saw the death toll rise inexorably from 50 to 100, to 150 and beyond.
Those who died, died painfully, wracked by cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea - leaving behind wives and children who now face a perilous future.
“We're ruined,” said Roserana Naskar, whose husband - normally teetotal - died on Wednesday after drinking from the toxic batch of methanol-laced alcohol at the home of a relative who was celebrating the birth of his second son.
“We have nothing now. Just our home and I don't know how we can keep that,” said Naskar, who has four young children.
Jhunu Bibi, a 30-year-old mother of four, broke down as she contemplated life after the death of her husband whose body was brought home from the hospital on Friday evening.
“I don't know what to do. I have to carry on because of the children. How do I feed them?” she said.
Newly-married and now widowed Anwara Bibi, 23, said she had no choice but to return to her father's house just months after leaving it to start a new life with her husband, a tailor.
“My life has been taken away,” she said.
In the district's largest hospital, in the town of Diamond Harbour, bodies were being laid outside on Saturday, with the facility's small morgue unable to cope with the number of dead.
“We're helpless,” said hospital superintendent Chiranjib Murmu. “This stuff is so toxic, there's really no treatment.
“By the time people get here, they are already dying. They don't respond to any medicine,” he said.
Days after the poisoning first surfaced, the sick were still being brought in, going the opposite way to hospital rickshaws and even horse-drawn carts ferrying bodies back to their home villages.
Amid the grief, there was also intense anger. On Friday evening, a crowd ransacked the house of one man who allegedly controlled a string of illegal distilleries in the area.
Methanol, a highly toxic form of alcohol used as an anti-freeze or fuel, is often added to bootleg liquor in India as a cheap, quick method of upping the alcohol content.
If the dosage is too high, it results in a lethal brew that can induce blindness and death.
Equally toxic, social workers say, is the collusion of local police and politicians who take a sizeable cut of the profits for turning a blind eye to the “hooch” cottage industry.
“While the hunt is on for the manufacturers ... it's necessary to realise they are just smaller cogs in a much larger criminal wheel,” the Hindustan Times said in an editorial on Saturday.
“To run this well-oiled racket, manufacturers and distributors of spurious liquor get support from the very same people who are supposed to stop such activities,” the newspaper said. - Sapa-AFP