Getting away with killer liquor

Police raids on illegal home distillers do not even scratch the surface of the problem.

Last year about this time, one month into the coronavirus lockdown, 13 people died of a mysterious illness in a single village in Mahottari. A few weeks later in a Dhanusa neighbourhood, another 16 people died with similar symptoms: severe headache and vomiting.

These two tragedies have long disappeared from the media headlines. And so has their cause: the consumption of home-made liquor.

Nepal has laws against adulteration of food and the sale of edibles past their expiry date. Yet, a year after the deaths in Province 2 no one has been found responsible, there has been no justice, and no compensation for the families of the victims.

“He came back complaining of a headache, I rubbed oil on his head, we even took him to Bardibas hospital, but he did not make it,” says Anbhauri Chaudhari, widow of Mahendra Chaudhari, a farmer who had consumed the liquor.

Anabhauri Chaudhari

The next day, their neighbour Mohan Chaudhari also complained of a headache. His family knew that a neighbour had died, so they looked around for an ambulance to take him to hospital in Janakpur. But by the time it came, Mohan Chaudhari had also died.

“They said it could have been because he drank too much, or maybe they mixed something in the drink,” his brother Dasrath says. 

Dashrath Chaudhari

In the next few days, 13 people in Meghnath Gohanna village had died of similar causes. There was terror in the surrounding villages because everyone thought it was Covid-19. The bodies were tested for the coronavirus, but they came out negative. People turned to superstition to appeasing the gods to put a stop to the calamity.

Local police started to investigate and through a different kind of contact-tracing than for Covid-19,  they found out that all the dead had consumed the same locally distilled liquor in the same shop. Autopsy results of the dead also showed alcohol-poisoning.

Rajamata Devi Singh

“The usual liquor shops were closed because of the lockdown, but there was one woman in the village who was selling home-made spirit in her house. My husband and many others had eaten and drank there, she killed my husband,” says Rajmati Devi Singh, adding that the woman was later chased out of the village.

Mamata Mahara’s father-in-law had come home late at night, and at about 1AM he started to writhe in pain. By morning he was dead. Ramrati Devi Mahara’s husband said her husband also started complaining of a headache at night, by 2AM he was in great pain, and by morning he died in hospital.

“At first we did not take it seriously, but when they started dying one by one, we started having suspicions about the alcohol they consumed, and that was confirmed by the post-mortem,” recalls mayor Sanjiv Kumar Sah.

Most alcoholic drinks contain various concentrations of the organic compound ethanol (C2H5OH) which is used in cleaning fluids and disinfectants, but is also present in wine and beer, and has addictive psychoactive properties. However, ethanol smells and looks similar to methanol (CH3OH) which is highly poisonous even in small doses, causing blindness and even death.  

"Earlier, the villagers used to distil alcohol from molasses or grain, but as consumption grew they started adding all kinds of material including urea fertiliser,” explains journalist Rajkarna Mahato. “Driven by demand, there are many underground distillers over which there is no regulation and quality control. The ones who die are the poor who cannot afford commercial alcohol.”

Mahato says that despite the series of deaths in the past year, there are no entries in the police records of people who have died of alcohol poisoning. “There is absolutely no government monitoring of this problem, there is no concerted effort to raid the distillers and confiscate the equipment,” he adds.

A month later in Dhanusa, 16 people died with similar symptoms, and there too the locals at first feared a coronavirus outbreak. The local authorities then went house-to-house to ask about where the dead had been in the past 24 hours, and that is how it was traced to a local house selling home-made liquor. 

“You cannot stop people from drinking, the fatalities are due to poor governance and a weak state,” says consumer rights activist Jyoti Baniya.

Mayor Sanjiv Kumar Sah

There are two laws against harmful food items, even though they do not specifically relate to poisonous or adulterated alcohol. But if people who consume spurious liquor die, those selling the product are liable to be tried for manslaughter. The Alcohol Law of 1975 stipulates taxes on the sale of alcohol products, and also prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages without a license. 

However, despite the spate of deaths, no one has been tried and punished for these crimes in Dhanusa and Mahottari last year. In fact, some of the perpetrators are carrying on with the same business.

“Usually, the police acts after the deaths have occurred. What the point of that? Preventive action could have saved the lives,” says Mayor Sah. “We are not going to solve this problem if we catch the culprits after people have died, and then let them go after some time in jail.”

However, the issue in Dhanusa and Mahottari is that even one year later, no one has been caught. So there is no question of letting anyone go. Police inspector Prakash Bista says one of the sellers of liquor was investigated after the events last year, but could not be arrested because of the lack of evidence.

Prakash Bista, DSP, Nepal Police

“This is what it means to be poor, we have a hand-to-mouth existence,” says a relative of one of the victim, Shivanarayan Mahato. “We do not have the power to pursue justice or compensation.”

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