NEW DELHI — More than 100 people have died in northeastern India after drinking bootleg liquor, the second mass poisoning from illegal alcohol to hit the country this month.
The deaths occurred in the state of Assam when workers on tea plantations consumed tainted liquor sold by unlicensed vendors, officials said. Dozens are still being treated in local hospitals.
Bootleg liquor is cheap, powerful and widely available in India, making it a popular option for those who cannot afford the alcohol sold at state-licensed outlets.
Such moonshine can also be fatal. Bootleggers have been known to spike their product with methanol, a toxic substance used in antifreeze, to boost potency. Methanol can also result from a mistake in the distilling process.
Earlier this month, about 100 people died in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand after drinking bootleg liquor.
In Assam, the poisonings began Thursday afternoon. Four women — workers at a nearby tea plantation — were admitted to a hospital in Golaghat district in serious condition after drinking bootleg liquor, said Pushpraj Singh, the local superintendent of police. He said police were working to trace the origin of the tainted liquor.
At least 59 people died in Golaghat district, according to Dhiren Hazarika, a local administrator, and 43 more died in the neighboring district of Jorhat, suggesting that the illegal alcohol came from a nearby source.
People who drank the deadly liquor arrived at hospitals complaining of abdominal pain, blurry vision and severe headaches, said Ratan Bordoloi, a local health department official. In the wake of the tragedy, state authorities arrested suspected bootleggers, raided distilleries and suspended local bureaucrats.
Since 2016, Assam’s state government has been controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the political group of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On Saturday, Parimal Suklabaidya, the state minister responsible for regulating the sale of liquor, said authorities had attempted to tackle the menace of illegal alcohol.
“We have tried to control this,” he said. “We can say we were successful to some extent but not entirely.”
One way to prevent such deaths would be to make safe liquor available more cheaply, wrote James Manor, a professor at the University of London and the author of a book about an illegal liquor disaster that took place in India in the 1980s.
To reduce the cost of regulated alcohol, politicians would have to cut the taxes charged on it. That would not only hurt a key source of government revenue, but also expose governments to charges that they were promoting drinking.
The deaths in Assam, India’s top tea-producing state, are one of the worst episodes of illegal liquor poisonings in India in recent years.
In 2015, more than 100 people died in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, after consuming tainted liquor. The victims were mostly daily-wage laborers from one of the city’s slums who reportedly bought small plastic packets of bootleg alcohol for less than 10 cents. Another mass poisoning from illicit liquor took place in 2011 in the state of West Bengal, where more than 140 people were killed.
Makepeace Sitlhou in Guwahati, India, contributed to this report.