Toxic methanol caused hooch deaths in Assam: Cops
Samples of the illicit liquor that killed 156 people in the Golaghat and Jorhat districts of Assam last week have tested positive for methyl alcohol or methanol, a toxic chemical, police officers probing the case said on Thursday.
“We collected samples from several places. Some of them have tested positive for methyl alcohol, something the doctors as well as we have been suspecting all along. An official report is awaited though,” said one of the officers, asking not to be named as he is not authorised to speak to media.
Methanol poisoning has been behind most of the hooch tragedies in India, including the one in which more than 100 people were killed in parts of western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the second week of February. In 2011, as many as 172 people lost their lives after consuming methanol laced liquor in West Bengal. Illegal distillers make the mistake of using methanol instead of ethyl alcohol or ethanol, which is not toxic.
Dr Uttam Prasad Dutta, superintendent at the civil hospital in Golaghat where multiple deaths were reported, said: “Methanol is poisonous. In this incident, many patients who came here complained of blurry vision, vomiting, abdominal pain, delirium and restlessness which made us suspect methanol may have been mixed with the liquor they consumed. If the patients get to the hospital immediately it is possible to treat them but in this case, many came only after their condition worsened.”
According to the Assam Police, on February 21, a group of four women from Halmira Tea Estate in Golaghat first reported sick. Police said Pranjal Sharma, the doctor at the tea estate hospital, collected a sample of the illicit liquor from the house of one of the four, and handed it over to the police. Droupadi Urang and her son Sanju Urang, both of whom later died, distributed the liquor, the police added.
A total of 44 people have been arrested so far in Golaghat and Jorhat districts. Pushpraj Singh, superintendent of police, Golaghat, said the probe has exposed the entire network of manufacturers and distributors of the illicit liquor. “Two individuals are yet to be arrested, including the one who supplied methyl alcohol,” added Singh.
Singh said that the police arrested these people based on “dying declarations” of some of the victims.
Dilip Kumar De, deputy inspector general of police, said there seem to be two parallel chains involved in the distribution and manufacturing of the illicit liquor — one in Golaghat and the other in Jorhat.
“To cut costs and make more profits, it is likely that they were mixing spirit and water and passing it on to consumers,” said Mukesh Agarwal, additional director general of police (law and order). He explained how, usually, the distillers would steal ethyl alcohol from trucks carrying it from distilleries in the neighbouring Karbi Anglong or other places. Ethanol is used in making alcoholic beverages.
“In this case, instead of ethyl alcohol, methyl alcohol seemed to have been stolen, mixed with water and sold,” Singh added.
Shantanu Hazarika, superintendent of excise department, Golaghat, said a raid conducted in November 2017 led to the seizure of 227 litres of methyl alcohol. In December 2018, two people from Jugibari village in Golaghat were arrested. It is this village that supplied hooch to Halmira and adjoining areas where maximum deaths were reported.