Methanol-laced hooch claims 58 lives in Tamil Nadu’s Kallakurichi, exposing gaps in liquor regulation

Government orders probe amid growing concerns over lax enforcement of chemical controls and the persistent challenge of illicit brewing in the State.

Published : Jun 20, 2024 20:32 IST - 6 MINS READ

People mourn the deaths of their family members due to the consumption of spurious liquor in Kallakurichi district on June 20, 2024. At least thirty-four people from Kallakurichi district have died in the tragedy

People mourn the deaths of their family members due to the consumption of spurious liquor in Kallakurichi district on June 20, 2024. At least thirty-four people from Kallakurichi district have died in the tragedy | Photo Credit: PTI

In one of the worst hooch tragedies in recent times, at least 58 people, including a few women, have died, and more than 50 others are battling for their lives after consuming a methanol-spiked moonshine brew in Kallakurichi town, some 200 kilometres away from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, on Thursday, June 20.

The majority of those who died were from economically and socially weaker sections of Dalits in Kallakurichi town, and a few others were from nearby villages. The Kallakurichi Government Medical College Hospital was completely overwhelmed as a steady stream of consumers of the deadly brew were brought in mini lorries and autorickshaws from surrounding areas since Wednesday night. Those who needed emergency hemodialysis (filtering of blood) were referred to the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) in Puducherry, where three had died, in addition to four in the Government Medical College Hospital, Viluppuram, and eight in the Government Medical College Hospital, Salem.

The shocked State government ordered the immediate suspension of the Superintendent of Police of Kallakurichi, Samay Singh Meena, and transferred District Collector Sravan Kumar Jatavath. A dozen police officials and personnel of the Prohibition Enforcement Wing (PEW, a special police division dedicated to enforcing laws related to the prohibition of alcohol) were either suspended on charges of dereliction of duty pending inquiry or transferred. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, while expressing his shock, asked the Home Secretary and the DGP to rush to the spot. He issued stern instructions to take action against all those suspected of being involved in the crime.

Also Read | Tamil Nadu hooch tragedy: Police nab methyl alcohol supplier

Stalin also constituted a judicial commission of inquiry, headed by former Madras High Court Judge B Gokuldas, to investigate the incident and submit its report to the State within three months. Simultaneously, he transferred the case to the Crime Branch - Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) for a deeper investigation. The Chief Minister sanctioned compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 for those in hospitals. A team of ministers, including Udayanidhi Stalin, K Ponmudi, E.V. Velu, and Ma Subramaniyan, have been monitoring the emergency medical care, post-mortems, and transport of victims’ bodies since Wednesday night.

Epicentre of tragedy

A pall of gloom descended over the epicentre of the tragedy, Karunapuram in Kallakurichi town, where 19 people had died. Located just adjacent to the Combined Court Complex, it was a major Dalit habitation, housing around 10,000 people. Most of them were daily labourers, such as load handlers, painters, plumbers, and workers in odd jobs. It sported an eerie look with the sound of wails renting the air. One of its streets had three deaths, two from one family. A steady stream of visitors, relatives, and friends of the victims had choked the narrow lane that led to the area.

One of the relatives of a 50-year-old victim told Frontline that the people preferred to drink daily. But the recent hike in the prices of Tamil Nadu’s government-run alcohol retail and distribution company TASMAC’s Indian Made Foreign Liquors (IMFL) and the deficient “peak” in them had made many migrate to the illicit brew. “Just a 150 ml sachet of brew for half the price of a quarter in a TASMAC shop will make you forget the body pain you underwent while lifting sacks of vegetables and grains in the Central Market, where many of us work as load men. We used to have an undisturbed sleep so that we would be ready for the gruelling work the next day,” he said. Hence, for the past six or seven months, the sale of illicit brew has picked up in the locality. “Many of us know the main accused, Govindaraj, in Karunapuram,” said the relative. He was fortunate to survive today since he did not consume the poisonous liquor as he had gone to Salem for personal work.

The bootlegger would even deliver the brew in sachets at doorsteps on orders via the phone. The fact that the illicit brewer is a repeat offender with 22 bootlegging cases against him so far and that he brews the liquor just outside the town limits clearly points to the nexus between the local police and the criminal, according to the locals. Govindaraj, his wife, and his brother were arrested in this connection. The police were on to trace the person who supplied methanol to them.

Family members take part in a funeral procession of victims who died after consuming toxic alcohol in Kallakurichi on June 20, 2024.

Family members take part in a funeral procession of victims who died after consuming toxic alcohol in Kallakurichi on June 20, 2024. | Photo Credit: R.SATISH BABU

“Preliminary lab reports suggest that the illicit brew has been mixed with methyl alcohol, and emergency treatment is rendered as per the medical protocol,” said a senior doctor in the hospital. However, he said that many had lost the “golden hour” of having a chance to survive since they wrongly read the symptoms of dizziness and blurred vision as effects of the liquor. “By the time they arrived, many were beyond resuscitation,” he said. The post-mortem reports of the victims had one common finding–“methanol poisoning”.

A recurring crisis

Despite the sale of IMFL in TASMAC outlets across Tamil Nadu, the menace of moonshine continues to haunt successive governments in the State. Evidently, the Kallakurichi tragedy is not an isolated incident. The State witnessed a bigger tragedy in May 2008 in the border villages of Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu and Kolar in Karnataka. Nearly 180 people, around 60 in Krishnagiri district and the rest in Kolar and Bangalore suburbs, died after consuming a brew containing methyl alcohol. Many also lost their vision.

Also Read | Tamil Nadu hooch tragedy: Police nab methyl alcohol supplier

Since then, a strict vigil has been mounted against such adulterated brews, though deaths due to them have continued to be reported sporadically. In 2023, around 22 people died of the same concoction in Viluppuram and Chengalpattu districts in Tamil Nadu. Methanol was the culprit then too. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, Tamil Nadu reported 20 such deaths in 2020 and six in 2021. Many other States, such as Bihar, where prohibition of liquor is in force, and Maharashtra have also recorded major hooch tragedies.

Methanol is a toxic industrial chemical, and the State has legal means to monitor its sale. It is hence surprising that despite illicit brew deaths in 2023, where methanol was also the culprit, the State has shown laxity in preventing the abuse of this industrial chemical. It has been brought under the ambit of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act, 1937 since 2002.

To prevent illicit sale and regulate methanol sale, amendments were made to the Tamil Nadu Denatured Spirit, Methyl Alcohol and Varnish (French Polish) Rules, 1959. There has been a demand from all quarters that the chemical should be mixed with substances to give it either a bitter taste or foul smell to prevent its abuse, as seen in Kallakurichi and other hooch tragedies. “Laws are there. But the implementation remains tardy, leading to huge human tragedies,” said an activist who demands a CBI inquiry into the Kallakurichi incident.

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