LUCKNOW, India (AP) — Authorities in a north Indian state suspended 23 officials Wednesday in a crackdown on illegal liquor sales, as the death toll among villagers who drank from a bad batch of cheap alcohol climbed to 38.
Investigators were looking into whether officials neglected to halt illegal liquor sales, possibly accepting bribes to ignore the trade, District Magistrate Raj Shekhar said.
Hospitals were still treating more than 100 people poisoned by homemade alcohol bought Sunday night from a village shop in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. Officials said many people lost their eyesight and eight are in critical condition.
Authorities have seized chemicals from the shop for testing. Doctors say the victims' symptoms indicate the drinks contained methyl alcohol, which despite being toxic is sometimes mixed with ethyl alcohol to make a cheaper brew.
Meanwhile, police raided shops and seized at least 1,700 liters (450 U.S. gallons) of illegal liquor across the vast and impoverished state, where unlicensed liquor is popular because it's cheap, Inspector General A. Satish Ganesh said.
Villagers said many poor families rely on the illicit, untaxed trade for their only income. "The economy of at least a half-dozen nearby villages is based on the manufacture and sale of illicit liquor," Rudra Pratap Rawat, whose father was among the killed in the latest tragedy in Datli village, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of the state capital, Lucknow.
Datli's leader, Vijay Nandini, blamed poverty, unemployment and illiteracy for the flourishing trade, with bootleggers working out of homes and hidden warehouses to mix chemicals into genuine alcohol to create huge volumes of cheap swill.
Police on Tuesday arrested the owner of the Datli shop that had sold the alcohol on Sunday night. Indian media reported another 12 people had been arrested on Wednesday.