The first four victims were from Halmira Tea Estate in Golaghat district of Upper Assam. They died on Thursday night, hours after they were admitted to hospital after drinking spurious liquor. Over the next two days, more deaths were
reported from four other areas, including from the neighbouring district of Jorhat, some about 40 km away from Halmira Tea Estate. By Saturday evening, the toll had climbed to 114.
The victims include a mother-son duo, who are suspected to have supplied the local jaggery-based liquor, called ‘sulai’, at Halmira. The woman, Dhraupadi Urang (62), was among the first to report sick at the Halmira Tea Estate Hospital on Thursday evening, along with three other women — Angni Gowala (60), Bondhoin Bowri (54) and Belo Bhumij (62). All four women died at the Golaghat Civil Hospital later that night.
Since Thursday night, deaths have also been reported from Wokha (about 25 km from Halmira), Gobinpur (about 40 km from Halmira), Borholla in Jorhat (about 30 km from Halmira) and Titabor in Jorhat (about 30 km from Halmira).
“Seventy-one residents of Golaghat district and 43 residents of Jorhat district have died,” Additional Director General of Assam Police, Law and Order, Mukesh Agarwal told The Sunday Express. He said seven people have been detained from Golaghat district and three from Jorhat.
Dr Pranjal Sarma of the Halmira Tea Estate Hospital said at least 38 of these victims were from the tea garden.
While the Jorhat Medical College and Hospital (JMCH) received 220 patients, about 100 were admitted to the Golaghat Civil Hospital.
On Friday, Sanju Urang (28), son of Dhraupadi Urang, was among those dead. While police have seized 1.5 litres of liquor from their house, senior police officers said that with the deaths being spread across a 40-km radius, at least 17 other sellers have been identified. Of these, at least five, including the Urangs, have died.
Police are now investigating whether all these sellers had a common supplier. “Primarily, we have to find the producers of the spurious liquor that killed so many people, investigate the distributors and then, with the help of the FSL team which arrives later tonight, find out what the adulterant was,” said Golaghat SP Pushpraj Singh. The liquor seized from Urang’s house will be sent for forensic analysis.
According to relatives of victims in Halmira, the ‘sulai’ sellers in the village used to procure the liquor from Jogibari, a neighbouring village which reported at least two deaths. In Jogibari, villagers said at least four families are engaged in making and selling ‘sulai’. All these families are absconding since Saturday morning.
“Just because they (the families in Jogibari) were making the liquor does not mean that the adulteration happened there. We have to find the source of adulteration. Our hunch is that methyl alcohol was the substance used, but that has to be chemically confirmed,” said SP Singh. “There can be multiple producers at different locations, we have to investigate what is the common contaminant,” he said.
“People have been drinking this liquor for a long time now… This is the first time something like this has happened. We don’t know what went wrong,” said Lalit Tirkey (55), a farmer in Halmira.
Meanwhile, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who visited JMCH on Saturday, announced ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each for the families of those who died, and Rs 50,000 for those undergoing treatment. He has ordered an inquiry by Commissioner, Upper Assam Division, Julie Sonowal, into the incident. Excise Minister Parimal Suklabaidya has also ordered a probe by a four-member team headed by Additional Commissioner, Excise, Sanjib Medhi.
“We are providing the best care possible… Every possible treatment and medicine is being provided. Teams of doctors and paramedical staff have been mobilised from other hospitals of the state as well,” said Dr Rathindra Bhuyan, Director of Health Services, Assam.