“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.