India saw one of its worst liquor tragedies, as at least 148 people died and over 100 were hospitalised in rural West Bengal after they drank spurious liquor that came as cheap as Rs.10 a glass. It is the second man-made disaster to the state in less than a week after 93 people died in a hospital inferno in south Kolkata.
The twin incidents, killing over 230 people, have begun to raise serious governance questions among the people about the 200-day administration of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The liquor tragedy victims at various villages in Magrahat Block in South 24 Parganas district were mostly masons, wage labourers and hawkers, who sat in shanties to drink as a way to relax after a hard day's work. The drink came for Rs.10 a glass or Rs.20 a plastic pouch and, according to reports, many boys in their pre-teens and teens are among the victims.
Last Friday, a huge fire tragedy killed 93 people in a south Kolkata's AMRI hospital.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has ordered a Criminal Investigation Department probe into the liquor deaths in Sangrampur, barely 50 km from capital Kolkata. She said ten people have been arrested. The victims, who had Tuesday night visited over a dozen illegal liquor dens near Sangrampur railway station in the village besides a few others in adjoining areas, were mostly from the poorest sections of society. Sangrampur falls under the Diamond Harbour sub-divisional headquarter.
The victims started throwing up and collapsing soon or hours after they consumed the liqour, that was mixed with a toxic chemical that has not yet been identified, said District Magistrate N.S. Nigam. Samples have been sent to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Kolkata.
"So far 148 people have died. Nearly 85-90 people are still hospitalised," said Shikha Adhikari, district chief medical officer, Health. "109 perished at Diamond Harbour Sub-divisional Hospital, and 39 in two Kolkata hospitals - 24 in M R Bangur and 15 in National Medical College Hospital," she said.
The victims died following cardio-respiratory failure due to methanol poisoning. Most of them belonged to Usthi, Mandirbazar and Magrahat police station areas. Heaps of the pouches, plastic glasses and jars were still scattered in over a dozen shanties where the worst hooch tragedy in West Bengal took place.
Heart-rending scenes were witnessed in large parts of Magrahat block as procession of dead bodies continued Thursday. "What will I do now? How will I live," cried Ujala Bibi, whose husband succumbed after consuming spurious liquor Wednesday night.
Outside her small hutment, two children sat, too stunned to move and too young to understand they have lost their father -- a mobile hawker -- for ever. "From around 2 a.m. Wednesday, people started vomiting, had loose motions and complained of serious stomach pain," said a Sangrampur resident.
"I drank Tuesday night. After some hours I fell ill. I was brought here. Then I recovered and was discharged. But the problems returned after a short while and I had to be readmitted. There is a burning sensation in the eye," said Azizur S.K. of Sangrampur village.
Some doctors feel there was a fear that some of the patients may lose their eyesight even if they survive. Official sources said more people have been admitted to hospitals since Wednesday evening. Patients came in even Thursday and the toll was likely to rise, they said.
The Diamond Harbour Sub-Divisional Hospital has been earmarked as the nodal treatment centre for those taken ill after drinking the liquor. "Altogether 327 people were brought to this hospital. Of them 35 were declared brought dead," Adhikari said.
"Joint raids by police, CID officials and excise department personnel are on to nail the culprits," said district police chief L.N. Meena. A manhunt has also been launched for the prime suspects - Kalu Siraj, Khora Badshah and Bakka, all known bootleggers. Locals said quite a few people died outside hospital as well.
The state government has announced a compensation of Rs.2 lakh each for the families of the dead. Earlier in 1992, over 200 people had died in Orissa after consuming spurious liquor. In 2009, a similar incident in Gujarat left 136 dead.