Illicit Liquor-1719515210421
Family members mourn the death of people who died after consuming toxic liquor at Kallakurichi, in Tamil Nadu, India, June 20, 2024 Image Credit: Reuters

Survivors recounted the horror of June 22 in the small, impoverished village of Karunapuram, India. The name itself, meaning the abode of compassion or pity, now seems bitterly ironic. In the often-overlooked Kallakurichi district of Tamil Nadu, it appeared as though an entire village had become intoxicated.

By afternoon, hundreds were suffering from vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, and dizziness. By the time help arrived, it was too late. Some lost their sight, while others collapsed. The toll? Fifty-seven dead and over 150 seriously ill.

Karunapuram village turned into a graveyard, marking one of the most heart-wrenching incidents of liquor adulteration in recent Indian history. The incident exposes not only the dangerous underbelly of illicit liquor trade but also raises serious questions about the effectiveness of local governance in preventing such avoidable tragedies.

Family members and relatives of the deceased lamented that local police and district administration were aware of illegal bootlegging activities but took no action to prevent the catastrophe.

Read more by Prof Makarand R. Paranjape

Severity of the issue

Why did this happen? Perhaps because the victims were among the poorest of the poor. After unloading sacks of vegetables and produce all night, they lined up at dawn to consume cheap alcohol before retiring to their huts. However, instead of rest, they faced a nauseating and deadly ordeal.

For some, this led to untimely graves. Symptoms such as pain, blindness, optic neuropathy, cerebral oedema, haemorrhage, and death are classic signs of methanol poisoning, common in spurious liquor tragedies across the subcontinent since colonial times.

The Karunakaran village calamity is not just an accidental disaster but a stark example of a man-made catastrophe fuelled by negligence and criminal profiteering. Reports indicate that methanol poisoning was the primary cause of death and severe health issues among villagers.

Attempts to downplay the severity of the issue through claims of distilling errors or accidents are unfounded. What occurred was more than negligence; it was deliberate malpractice. Ethanol, the standard intoxicant in beverages, is more expensive and heavily taxed, prompting unscrupulous individuals to substitute it with methanol, a significantly cheaper but deadly alternative.

“Under the noses of administration”

The adulteration in Karunapuram is not an isolated incident but a reflection of calculated criminal intent, turning an illegal activity (unlicensed liquor manufacturing) into a monstrous enterprise. Sourcing methanol, a highly restricted substance, without proper clearances is nearly impossible without some form of collusion or wilful ignorance on the part of authorities.

To describe this incident as anything less than culpable homicide would be dishonest. The fact that such a tragedy could occur “under the noses of police and administration” severely indicts the functioning and vigilance of local government and law enforcement agencies.

While the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government led by Chief Minister M.K. Stalin swiftly responded with ex gratia payments to victims’ families and transfers in the police and district administration, these measures do not address the systemic failures that perpetuate such disasters.

This tragedy underscores not only a public health crisis but also highlights persistent inequalities in rural areas. The victims, primarily from marginalised communities, suffered disproportionately. Timely medical intervention could have significantly reduced the death toll. Apathy, delays, and attempts to cover up the catastrophe further exacerbated the situation.

Karunakaran’s tragedy serves as a stark reminder of the lethal combination of neglect and greed. It demands a thorough review and overhaul of regulatory frameworks governing methanol distribution and a crackdown on illicit liquor production nationwide. Education must play a crucial role in raising awareness about the dangers of illicit liquor, particularly the deadly methanol toxin. Addressing economic conditions that drive the poor towards hazardous addictions is also imperative.

As policymakers, law enforcers, and citizens, we must reflect on and reform practices that lead to such disasters. To prevent future tragedies and honour the memory of those lost, decisive action is needed to eradicate the root causes of these devastating outcomes.