At weddings, prayer meetings and multiple mass gatherings, white plastic pouches of country-made liquor were sold in villages across Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh along the Uttarakhand border. Manufactured with cheap raw materials and sold for between Rs 10 and Rs 30, the liquor, locals say, was a common sight in the region.
The deaths, however, are a first. Over the last four days, officials say, the illicit liquor has killed at least 99 people — 59 in Saharanpur, 10 in Kushinagar and 30 in Haridwar, the source of the poisonous liquor, according to police.
In a two-day drive against spurious liquor trade, a UP government spokesperson said in a statement, 3,049 people have been arrested and over 79,000 litres of country-made liquor seized across the state. According to the spokesperson, 2,812 FIRs have been filed, and the most arrests, around 2,700, were made in the Agra zone. The government also constituted a Special Investigation Team to probe the deaths and submit a report in 10 days.
Dharam Singh (36) said the illicit liquor killed his brother Gulab and sent four other relatives to hospital. “There are 4-5 people in our village that engage in selling this liquor. It is an open secret. One of them sold it to our family members on Thursday. We rushed them to the hospital but my youngest brother couldn’t make it. Four others are receiving treatment,” he said.
Despite the arrests, police are yet to determine where the poisonous liquor was made. Residents of Kolkakali, one of the worst affected villages, talk about mass production in forested areas on the border.
Reena recalls, in anger and despair, a woman who had sold her husband the liquor. “I remember very clearly a woman, in her mid-40s, was standing on the side of the highway selling the liquor. My husband, Rakesh, bought it and drank with his friends and came back seriously ill. He died shortly after. Most people in the village recognise her. She’s been missing since that day. I hope she gets punished,” she said.
Other than killing at least 99 people, the spurious liquor has left hundreds of others in hospital. Like Tinku Verma (28), who was rushed to Saharanpur Bajoria Government Hospital Sunday morning from Pundain village.
With the wedding season at its height, he drank the liquor from the white pouch at a function close to his village. “He’s been writhing in pain since morning. He drank the liquor on the 7th. Initially, he complained of some uneasiness but his dizziness has increased and he has been holding his stomach. God knows what is happening”, said his wife Meenu.
In the emergency ward, Tinku is one among dozens with similar symptoms. According to hospital staff, since Friday morning, ambulances have been streaming in and out all day ferrying patients as anxious families sit outside from Umahi, Kolkakali and Salempur villages among others.
Health officials are yet to throw light on the nature of poisoning constituent that was allegedly used in the liquor. “We have sent more than 30 viscera samples for testing to Lucknow and results are awaited. The alleged liquor could have used methyl alcohol instead of ethyl alcohol since it’s cheaper and a large amount of toxic substance could have been added,” said Dr S K Varshney, Chief Medical Superintendent of the Saharanpur Medical Government College.
Meanwhile, Uttarakhand and UP Police have been conducting joint raids along the border to ascertain the source of liquor. Two people arrested Sunday have allegedly confessed to distributing liquor and have given police leads.
“One of the arrested, Sonu, has admitted to giving out liquor packets in Balpur village situated in Uttarakhand. They have mentioned another person who goes by the name of “Sardar” who is also part of the liquor distribution chain. After questioning, we will look to capture the mentioned person to get more details about the prevailing liquor system”, said Dinesh Kumar, Superintendent of Police (Saharanpur)