India bootleg alcohol death toll rises to 98

NEW DELHI • The death toll from a toxic bootleg alcohol scandal in the north Indian state of Punjab rose to 98 on Sunday, officials and reports said.

Police have arrested 25 people so far over the worsening tragedy, which starting coming to light late last week, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency said.

Hundreds of people die every year in India from illegal alcohol made in backstreet distilleries which sells for as little as 10 rupees (56 sen) a litre, affordable for even the poorest.

The death toll from the illicit booze had risen to 75 in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district after further investigation, the local administration’s deputy commissioner Kulwant Singh said.

“Several families refused to divulge details of deaths and a few even cremated them. We have come to this number after information gathering,” Singh told AFP on Sunday.

A further 11 people had died in Gurdaspur district, a local official told AFP. PTI reported on Saturday that toxic moonshine had also killed 12 in Amritsar.

Punjab state Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said last Friday he had ordered a special inquiry into the deaths and “anyone found guilty will not be spared”.

In a separate incident, authorities in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh said last Friday nine people had died after drinking alcohol-based sanitiser.

Of the estimated five billion litres of alcohol drunk every year in India, around 40% is illegally produced, according to the International Spirits and Wine Association of India.

Deaths are frequently reported, with bootleggers often found adding methanol — a highly toxic form of alcohol sometimes used as an anti-freeze — in their brews to increase its strength. If ingested, methanol can cause blindness, liver damage and death in larger concentrations.

In 2015, more than 100 people in a Mumbai slum died after drinking illegal moonshine. — AFP