SANGRAMPUR, India — Police were raiding illegal distilleries and dismantling dozens of liquor dens Friday across an eastern Indian district where 162 people have died after drinking methanol-tainted bootleg alcohol.
Twelve people have been arrested in connection with making and distributing the cheap, illicit liquor, but police were still searching for the kingpin of the operation, South 24 Parganas District Magistrate Naraya Swarup Nigam said.
Many of the victims — day laborers, street hawkers, rickshaw drivers — had gathered along a road near a railway station Tuesday after work to drink the illicit booze they bought for 10 rupees (20 cents) a half liter, less than a third the price of legal alcohol.
They later began vomiting, suffering piercing headaches and frothing at the mouth, and by Friday morning 162 had died and dozens more were in critical condition, Nigam said.
Nearly every home has at least one victim in the village of Sangrampur, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Kolkata, the city formerly known as Calcutta.
Angry villagers have ransacked some booze shacks, and police were tearing down others. West Bengal state's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordered an inquiry and promised a crackdown.
Illegal liquor operations flourish in India's urban slums and among the rural poor who can't afford the alcohol at state-sanctioned shops.
Despite religious and cultural taboos against drinking among Indians, 5 percent — roughly 60 million people — are alcoholics. Two-thirds of the alcohol consumed in the country is illegal homemade hooch or undocumented liquor smuggled in, according to The Lancet medical journal.
Bootleggers, often working in homes, hidden warehouses and even in forests, can turn 1 liter of genuine alcohol into 1,000 liters of bootlegged swill with chemicals and additives that usually cause no harm. However, sometimes the hooch is mixed with cheap, toxic chemicals to increase potency and profit, with deadly consequences.
One or two people die each week from tainted booze in India, according to the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, which fights alcohol-related problems. In 2009, at least 112 people died from a toxic brew in western India.
Drinking alcohol contains ethanol, whereas highly toxic methanol — a clear liquid that can be used as fuel, solvent or antifreeze — can induce comas and cause blindness and is deadly in high doses.