Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Indian toxic alcohol toll soars

The bereaved wife of a victim of illegal liquor poisoning in Karnataka
This woman mourns for her husband, who drank the alcohol

The number of people who have died after drinking poisonous illegal alcohol in two southern Indian states has risen to about 150, police say.

A further 135 people who drank the illegally brewed liquor are in hospital, some in a critical condition.

Bootleggers sold the drink in a district on the border between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Most of the dead are poor, migrant workers. Deaths from illegally brewed alcohol are common in South Asia.

Observers say the number of casualties in this case is shockingly high, even by Indian standards.

'Chemicals'

At least 107 deaths in the latest outbreak have been recorded in Karnataka, with another 41 in Tamil Nadu.

Some reports put the number of casualties higher and police have said they expect the death toll to rise.

Police in Karnataka say that the illegal liquor was brewed and sold by local bootleggers on Saturday after the authorities shut authorised alcohol shops and bars because of local elections.

The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder in Delhi says that is a routine step to prevent politicians from handing out free alcohol to win votes.

Most of the victims were poor migrant workers who fell sick after consuming the alcohol which was allegedly spiked with chemicals.

Sixteen people have been arrested for selling the alcohol and an investigation has been launched.

Senior Karnataka police official Shankar Bidri told the BBC that investigators were trying to determine whether all the deaths were caused by the same batch of illegal alcohol.

It is thought some of the liquor is still in circulation.

Illegally brewed alcohol is readily found across India, especially in villages where it is popular because it is cheap and said to be stronger than legal brews.

But it is often laced with chemicals and pesticides in an attempt to boost its strength and has often caused people to die, our correspondent says.

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