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People gather around the bodies of tea plantation workers who died after drinking bootleg liquor in Golaghat on Friday. Photograph: Reuters

Tainted alcohol kills 85 people in India

Hundreds more are sick, with many of them critical, says Assam health minister

WT24 Desk

Eighty-five people have died on tea estates in Assam, north-east India, after drinking poisonous hooch, The Guardian reports.

Assam’s health minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, confirmed on WhatsApp that 85 people had died but the final death toll may be higher as that figure relates only to hospital deaths and not any victims that may have died elsewhere.

Sarma said he was notified about a new death almost every two minutes. He said another 200 people were in hospital, many of them in critical condition.

The confusion over the death toll also comes from the fact the two districts where the tragedy took place on Thursday night – Jorhat and Golaghat – are about 180 miles (300km) from the state capital of Guwahati.

Doctors from other towns have been rushed to the area as hospitals have been struggling to deal with an influx of patients vomiting, suffering from stomach pains and having convulsions.

About a dozen of the dead are women and many of them were tea plantation workers who had just received their wages. Local reports suggested the hooch – a brew called “sulai” usually made with jaggery and ethyl alcohol – was made by a 65-year-old woman in Golaghat, named by police as Dhraupadi Oran, and her 30-year-old son, Sanju Oran.

It is believed that instead of using ethyl alcohol the pair, who are among the dead, used methyl alcohol, which is poisonous.

The deaths come less than a fortnight after 100 people died from drinking illegally made liquor in two other states. Industrial alcohol used in household disinfectants and anti-freeze was used in the concoction.

Men who cannot afford to buy licensed brands from government-controlled outlets because the prices are prohibitive turn to hooch, which is much cheaper.

It is a very profitable industry all over India as bootleggers pay no taxes and enjoy high demand. In 2011, 172 people died in a similar poisoning incident in West Bengal.

The Congress Party president, Rahul Gandhi, expressed his condolences on Facebook, writing: “I am saddened by the incident which occurred in Assam’s Golaghat area. My deepest condolences to the families of the victims. I hope that those undergoing treatment get well soon.”

Local media reported that six people were arrested and an investigation had been ordered.

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