India doctors fight to save West Bengal alcohol victims

Toxic alcohol victim in Diamond Harbour hospital, 15 Dec Dozens of people are still critically ill in hospital

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Doctors in India's West Bengal state are battling to save the remaining victims of toxic alcohol poisoning that has now killed 169 people.

A total of 195 people are still being treated in hospital, most of them critically ill.

Residents of 12 villages in the South 24 Parganas district fell ill after drinking the alcohol on Tuesday night. Thirteen people have been arrested.

Officials said the antifreeze methanol had been found in at least 20 victims.

The BBC's Amitabha Bhattasali in Calcutta says there is a shortage of medicine in hospitals and many patients complained they were being asked to buy medicine from outside.

Most victims are poor villagers who are unable to afford it.

Search for 'kingpin'

Local hospitals have been overwhelmed by victims arriving either unconscious or complaining of abdominal pains and burning in their chests.

Chief medical officer of South 24 Parganas district, Shikha Adhikari, told the BBC that 364 people had been admitted to hospitals since the outbreak.

Shyamapada Basak, health services director of West Bengal, told Agence France-Presse that more than 150 of those being treated were critically ill.

Health department officials said doctors, nurses, and paramedical staff had had leave cancelled and were working overtime to attend to the victims.

The affected villages are in the Sangrampur, Magrahat, Usthi and Mandirbazar areas of South 24 Parganas district.

Grieving relative near Diamond Harbour hospital, 15 Dec The state government has vowed strong action against illegal liquor sellers

Many of the victims had stayed at home fearing police harassment if they went to hospital, so the exact number of people affected has still to be determined.

The West Bengal state government has ordered a criminal investigation into the deaths.

Police are gathering toxic alcohol samples.

District magistrate Narayan Swarup Nigam told AFP that methanol, sometimes used as a fuel, had been found in at least 20 victims.

West Bengal police additional director general, Surojit Kar Purokayastha, said: "We are now looking for the kingpin of the racket."

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced compensation for the families of the victims. She said "strong action will be taken against those manufacturing and selling illegal liquor".

Our correspondent says the illegal breweries are in the Gocharan area and local residents say they operate with impunity, as local authorities do not interfere.

One man in the illegal liquor business who operates in Gocharan said this batch came from a man who was "extremely greedy" and who watered down the liquor then mixed in pesticide to give it "flavour".

The liquor is packed in cans and delivered all over the district and other parts of the state in buses and on trains. Retailers sell sachets after filling them up with the liquor.

The illegal alcohol - commonly called desi daroo or country-made liquor in India - is called cholai in West Bengal and it usually costs as little as 10 rupees (20 US cents) and the majority of the consumers are poor, daily-wage workers.

The tainted liquor can lead to fits, vomiting and death, an all-too regular occurrence in India.

Last week, the state of Gujarat brought in a new law making the illegal manufacture and sale of toxic alcohol there punishable by death.

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