Understanding and Addressing the Risks of Spurious Liquor | UPSC


  • Over the last couple of days in Kallakurichi, in north Tamil Nadu, 39 people have died after consuming hooch laced with methanol. With others admitted in hospital in a critical condition, the toll might go up even further, rendering this one of the most devastating hooch tragedies in recent times.
  • ‘Hooch’ is a term used for spurious alcoholic preparations.  Spurious liquors include illicit liquor (un-authorized preparation, not fit for human consumption and not complying with the BIS standards) and denatured alcohol (prepared for industrial uses and is rendered entirely unfit for human consumption by adding denaturants).
  • Methyl alcohol (methanol) is a commonly used adulterant because of its appearance and taste similar to ethyl alcohol and its easy availability. On consumption, methanol is changed into formic acid inside the body and adversely affects various organ systems.
  • Delay in providing antidote (ethyl alcohol) at the initial stage leads to more casualties. Ethyl alcohol, widely known as ethanol, grain alcohol or drinking alcohol, is found in alcoholic beverages.

Understanding Alcohol: Ethanol Vs Methanol

a) Differentiation of Liquor by Alcohol Content

  • Liquor is differentiated by its alcohol content, ranging from the approximately 5% found in beer to the roughly 12% in wine, and up to around 40% in distilled spirits, all by volume.
  • In beverages consumed for recreational purposes, the alcohol in question is almost always ethanol (C2H5OH). Ethanol is technically a psychoactive drug that, in low doses, reduces the level of neurotransmission in the body, leading to its typical intoxicating effects.

b) Health Implications of Alcohol Consumption

  • Contrary to popular belief, the World Health Organization has found that “no level of its consumption is safe for our health.” Long-term use leads to dependence, heightens the risk of some cancers and heart disease, and may eventually cause death.
  • Inside the body, ethanol is metabolized in the liver and the stomach by enzymes into acetaldehyde and finally into acetate. The adverse effects of alcohol consumption, from the hangover to cancer, are due to acetaldehyde.

c) The Danger of Spurious Liquor

  • Spurious liquor is characterized by the liquid mixture containing industrial-grade methanol (CH3OH) from factories. The deadliness of spurious liquor arises from methanol.
  • In many cases, spurious liquor is typically homemade liquor to which methanol was added to strengthen the intoxicating effects (colloquially referred to as its ‘kick’) and/or to increase its bulk volume.
  • While the human body contains infinitesimal quantities of methanol (4.5 ppm in the breath of healthy individuals) from eating some fruits, even for an adult, more than 0.1 ml of pure methanol per kilogram of body weight can be devastating.

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d) Metabolism and Toxicity of Methanol

  • Once ingested, enzymes in our body metabolize methanol in the liver to form formaldehyde, which in turn is converted to formic acid.
      • The accumulation of formic acid over time leads to the blood’s pH dropping below its normal value of 7.35, becoming increasingly acidic. Formic acid also disrupts cells’ ability to use oxygen, leading to the build-up of lactic acid.
  • Consuming methanol can lead to “methanol-induced optic neuropathy,” a serious condition that may result in long-term or irreversible visual impairment or even blindness due to damage and loss of function of the optic nerve and retina.
  • Methanol poisoning can also cause cerebral edema (brain swelling), hemorrhage (an escape of blood from a ruptured blood vessel), and death.

e) Treatment of Methanol Poisoning

  • There are two immediate ways to treat methanol poisoning. One is to administer pharmaceutical-grade ethanol, which competes very well with methanol for the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) enzymes, metabolizing ethanol around 10 times faster. This prevents methanol from being metabolized to formaldehyde.
  • The other option is to administer an antidote called fomepizole, which has a similar mechanism: it slows the action of the ADH enzymes, causing the body to produce formaldehyde at a rate the body can quickly excrete, preventing the deadlier effects from kicking in.
  • Both courses of action are limited by availability: fomepizole is expensive, whereas pharmaceutical-grade ethanol needs to be administered under expert supervision.

f) Additional Medical Interventions

  • Healthcare workers may also have the individual undergo dialysis to remove methanol and formic acid salts from the blood, mitigating damage to the kidneys and the retina.
  • They may administer folinic acid, which encourages formic acid to break up into carbon dioxide and water. Both fomepizole and folinic acid are on the WHO’s list of essential medicines.

g) Regulatory Measures and Industrial Uses of Methanol

  • The Food Safety and Standards (Alcoholic Beverages) Regulations 2018 stipulate the maximum permissible quantity of methanol in different liquors.
      • These values span a wide range, including “absent” in coconut fenny, 50 grams per 100 liters of country liquor, and 300 grams per 100 liters of pot-distilled spirits.
  • Schedule I of the Manufacture, Storage, and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989 includes methanol.
  • Methanol has several industrial applications, including as a precursor to acetic acid, formaldehyde, and aromatic hydrocarbons. It is also used as a solvent and as antifreeze.

Reasons for widespread consumption of spurious alcohol in India

  • The widespread consumption of spurious alcohol in India can be attributed to a combination of economic, social, and regulatory factors.

a) Economic Factors

  • One of the primary reasons is the economic disparity and poverty that compel many individuals to seek cheaper alternatives to legally produced alcohol. The high taxes and duties on licensed alcohol make it unaffordable for a significant portion of the population. As a result, people turn to illicitly produced alcohol, which is often sold at a fraction of the cost of legitimate products.

b) Regulatory Factors

  • Another contributing factor is the lack of strict regulatory oversight and enforcement. While there are laws in place to curb the production and sale of illicit alcohol, the implementation and enforcement of these laws are often inadequate. Corruption and bureaucratic inefficiencies further exacerbate the problem, allowing illegal operations to flourish with impunity. The informal nature of these markets makes it difficult for authorities to track and dismantle them effectively.

c) Social and Cultural Factors

  • Social and cultural factors also play a role in the prevalence of spurious alcohol consumption. In some communities, there is a long-standing tradition of home-brewing and consuming locally made spirits. These practices are often passed down through generations and are deeply ingrained in the local culture. Moreover, in certain rural and remote areas, access to licensed alcohol outlets is limited, making spurious alcohol the only available option for residents.
  • Public awareness about the dangers of consuming spurious alcohol is relatively low. Many consumers are unaware of the severe health risks associated with illicit alcohol, which can contain toxic substances like methanol. In some cases, even when people are aware of the risks, the immediate need for an affordable intoxicant outweighs concerns for long-term health consequences. The lack of widespread education and awareness campaigns further perpetuates this cycle of consumption.

Negative effects of production and consumption of spurious alcohol

  • The production and consumption of spurious alcoholic beverages in India have significant negative effects on public health, economic stability, and social well-being.

a) Health Effects

  • Spurious alcohol, often referred to as illicit or counterfeit alcohol, is typically produced without proper regulation and contains harmful substances such as methanol, which can lead to severe health complications. The consumption of such alcohol has been linked to acute poisoning, blindness, and even death. The lack of quality control and the presence of toxic chemicals in these beverages pose a grave risk to consumers, many of whom are unaware of the dangers associated with these products.

b) Economic Effects

  • From an economic perspective, the proliferation of spurious alcohol undermines legitimate businesses and results in substantial revenue losses for the government. Licensed alcohol producers face unfair competition from unregulated manufacturers who evade taxes and operate outside the legal framework. This not only hampers the growth of the legitimate alcohol industry but also deprives the government of much-needed tax revenue, which could otherwise be used to fund public services and infrastructure. Additionally, the healthcare costs associated with treating illnesses caused by spurious alcohol further strain the country’s economic resources.

c) Social Effects

  • Socially, the widespread availability and consumption of spurious alcohol contribute to a range of issues, including increased crime rates and social unrest. The illegal nature of the production and distribution of these beverages often involves organized crime networks, which can lead to heightened violence and corruption. Furthermore, the health impacts of consuming spurious alcohol can result in long-term disabilities and loss of productivity, thereby affecting families and communities. The social stigma associated with alcohol-related health problems also exacerbates the marginalization of affected individuals, leading to broader societal issues.

Steps taken by the Govt. to prevent ‘hooch’ related deaths

  • The Indian government has undertaken several measures to combat the problem of ‘hooch’ or illicit liquor-related deaths, a recurrent issue due to the consumption of unregulated and often toxic alcohol.

a) Strict enforcement of existing laws and regulations

  • One of the primary strategies has been the strict enforcement of existing laws and regulations concerning the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol. Authorities regularly conduct raids and crackdowns on illegal distilleries and liquor vendors. These operations aim to dismantle the supply chains of illicit alcohol and deter individuals from engaging in its manufacture and sale. Additionally, increased surveillance and intelligence gathering efforts have been implemented to preemptively identify and target sources of illegal liquor.

b) Regulatory improvements

  • To enhance regulatory frameworks, several states have introduced more stringent penalties for those involved in the production and distribution of hooch. This includes higher fines and longer prison sentences to act as a stronger deterrent. Some regions have also considered or implemented partial or total prohibition (such as in Bihar and Gujarat), though this measure is often controversial and varies in effectiveness. Moreover, the government has been working on improving the quality control mechanisms for legally produced alcohol to ensure that consumers have access to safe alternatives, thereby reducing the temptation or necessity to resort to illicit options.

c) Public awareness campaigns

  • Public awareness campaigns play a crucial role in the government’s strategy to prevent hooch-related deaths. These campaigns educate the public about the dangers of consuming illicit alcohol and promote the benefits of choosing regulated, safe alcoholic beverages. The campaigns often leverage mass media, social media, and community outreach programs to disseminate information. Furthermore, there are efforts to promote de-addiction programs and support systems for individuals struggling with alcohol dependence, thereby addressing the demand side of the problem.

d) Collaborates with NGOs

  • In addition to these direct measures, the government collaborates with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community groups to tackle the issue. These partnerships help in creating grassroots movements against the consumption of illicit liquor and provide local support networks for those affected by hooch-related tragedies. NGOs often assist in providing educational materials, organizing community meetings, and offering rehabilitation services, which complement the government’s broader initiatives.

The way forward

  • Illicit liquor poses a significant threat to public health, safety, and the economy. To tackle this issue effectively, a multifaceted approach is essential.

a) Strengthening law enforcement

  • One of the primary steps is strengthening law enforcement mechanisms to crack down on illegal production and distribution networks. This includes increasing the resources and training for police and regulatory authorities, improving intelligence gathering, and enhancing coordination between different enforcement agencies.
  • Regular raids and stringent actions against those involved in the illicit liquor trade can act as a deterrent. Utilizing modern technology such as drones and AI-driven data analysis can improve detection and monitoring of illicit liquor production and distribution networks. Additionally, stringent penalties and swift judicial processes should be enforced to deter offenders.

b) Community engagement

  • Community engagement plays a significant role in tackling the issue at the grassroots level. Local authorities and non-governmental organizations should work together to educate communities about the dangers of consuming illicit liquor.
  • Public awareness campaigns highlighting the health risks and legal consequences associated with illicit alcohol can help change consumer behavior. Moreover, involving community leaders and influencers in these campaigns can amplify the message and encourage a shift towards safer, legal alternatives.

c) Policy reforms

  • Policy reform is also crucial in addressing the root causes of illicit liquor consumption. Governments should consider revising taxation and pricing policies for legal alcoholic beverages to make them more affordable and accessible. High taxes and prices often drive consumers towards cheaper, illegal alternatives.
  • Additionally, simplifying the licensing process for legal liquor production and distribution can encourage more legitimate businesses to enter the market, thus reducing the dominance of illegal operators. Policies should also include strict penalties for those found guilty of producing or distributing illicit liquor.

d) Addressing the socioeconomic factors

  • Finally, addressing the socio-economic factors that drive people towards illicit liquor is essential. This includes creating economic opportunities and providing support for marginalized communities who might be more inclined to produce or consume illegal alcohol due to financial constraints.
  • Governments and NGOs can develop programs that offer alternative livelihoods, vocational training, and financial assistance to those at risk. By improving the overall economic and social conditions of these communities, the demand for illicit liquor can be significantly reduced.

In summary, a comprehensive strategy to combat illicit liquor should involve a combination of stringent law enforcement, sensible policy reforms, active community engagement, and addressing underlying socio-economic issues. This multifaceted approach can create a sustainable solution to the problem, ensuring safer communities and reducing the adverse impacts of illicit liquor consumption.

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Answer Writing Practice for Mains

Topic: Issues relating to Poverty and Hunger. (GS Mains Paper 2)

  • Examine the socio-economic and regulatory factors contributing to frequent hooch tragedies in India. What comprehensive measures are necessary to effectively address this issue? (Answer in 250 words)

Model Answer:

  • Hooch tragedies, which refer to incidents of poisoning due to the consumption of illicit liquor, are a recurring and devastating problem in India. Several socio-economic and regulatory factors contribute to these tragedies.

Socio-Economic Factors:

  • Poverty and Unemployment: Many individuals involved in the production and sale of illicit liquor come from economically marginalized backgrounds. The lack of alternative livelihood opportunities compels them to engage in this dangerous trade.
  • Affordable Alternatives: Illicit liquor is significantly cheaper than legally produced alcohol, making it a more attractive option for the economically disadvantaged. This affordability comes at the cost of safety and health.
  • Social Practices: In some communities, the consumption of locally brewed alcohol is a long-standing tradition. These brews often escape regulatory scrutiny, leading to unsafe production practices.

Regulatory Factors:

  • Weak Enforcement: Despite laws prohibiting the production and sale of illicit liquor, enforcement remains weak. Corruption and the lack of adequate resources for law enforcement agencies exacerbate the problem.
  • Regulatory Gaps: Existing regulations often fail to cover the entire spectrum of alcohol production and distribution. Unlicensed production units exploit these gaps, resulting in the circulation of unsafe products.
  • Lack of Public Awareness: There is a significant lack of awareness among consumers about the dangers of illicit liquor. Misinformation and ignorance contribute to continued demand.

Comprehensive Measures to Address the Issue:

  • Strengthening Law Enforcement: Enhancing the capabilities of law enforcement agencies through better training, resources, and technology is crucial. Regular raids, stricter surveillance, and higher penalties for offenders can deter the production and sale of illicit liquor.
  • Economic Interventions: Providing alternative livelihood opportunities for those involved in the illicit liquor trade can reduce their dependence on this illegal activity. Microfinance schemes, vocational training, and support for small businesses can facilitate this transition.
  • Public Awareness Campaigns: Educating the public about the dangers of consuming illicit liquor is essential. Government agencies, NGOs, and community leaders should collaborate to disseminate information on safe alcohol consumption practices and the risks associated with illicit brews.
  • Affordable Legal Alternatives: Reducing taxes and simplifying regulations on legal alcohol production can make legitimate products more affordable and accessible, thereby reducing the demand for illicit liquor.

In conclusion, tackling hooch tragedies in India requires a multi-pronged approach that addresses both socio-economic and regulatory factors. Strengthening law enforcement, providing economic alternatives, raising public awareness, ensuring the availability of affordable legal alcohol, and fostering international cooperation are essential to mitigate this menace effectively. By addressing these factors comprehensively, it is possible to prevent future tragedies and protect public health and safety.



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