Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 07 July 2024

Hooch tragedy: Dravidian movement needs a voice that does not fear itself

Relevance: GS Paper I

Why in the News?

Recently, around 65 people have died after consuming illicit liquor in the Kallakurichi district of Tamilnadu.

What is hooch?

  • Hooch is a commonly used term for poor-quality alcohol. It is derived from the Hoochinoo, a native Alaskan tribe known for producing very strong liquor. 
  • Unlike branded liquor, which is produced in factories with sophisticated equipment and rigorous quality control, hooch is made in much more crude settings.
  • To put it simply, hooch is alcohol meant to intoxicate. But if prepared incorrectly, it can kill. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to tell whether hooch is safe to consume without actually drinking it.

Factors leading to hooch tragedy in Tamilnadu:

  • Social and Economic Factors:
    • Victim Demographics: Predominantly Scheduled Castes and Other Vulnerable Groups.
    • Economic Aspect: Daily wage earners are gravitating towards cheaper local moonshine due to high prices and exploitation at The Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) shops.
  • Illegal Alcohol Industry:
    • The persistence of the illegal moonshine industry due to the criminalization of alcohol.
    • Collusion between law enforcement, political class, and the mafia.
    • The disproportionate impact on the poor.
  • Historical Context:
    • Previous Incidents: Hooch tragedy in 2023 in Marakkanam and Madhuranthakam, also involving industrial methanol.
    • Long-Term Issue: Methanol used in illicit brewing has been a recurring problem.

How is hooch produced?

All alcohol is produced using two basic processes: fermentation and distillation.

  • Fermentation: When heated, yeast reacts with sugar (from grain, fruits, sugarcane, etc.) to ferment and produce a mixture containing alcohol. This is an age-old process used to create beverages like beer or wine. But it comes with a basic limitation. As fermentation continues and alcohol levels rise, conditions in the mixture become toxic for the yeast. Eventually, no more fermentation can take place. Thus, beverages need to be distilled to make anything stronger (above 14-18% ABC).
  • Distillation: This is the process of physically separating alcohol from a fermented mixture using evaporation and condensation. Since different parts of the mixture have different boiling points, heating it up to the correct temperature makes it possible to separate only the alcohol from the water and other remnants. Distilled beverages, or spirits, are far more potent than any fermented beverage.
  • Hooch is produced using distillation of a fermented mixture, generally of locally available yeast and sugar or fruit (often fruit waste). However, the setup used for the process is very rudimentary—often just a big vat where the mixture is boiled, a pipe that captures and carries the alcoholic fumes, and another pot where concentrated alcohol condenses. Multiple rounds of distillation are carried out to produce more potent alcohol.

Why can hooch be dangerous?

  • The fermented mixture which is distilled contains more than just consumable alcohol (ethanol). 
    • It also contains methanol, an industrial alcohol that is highly toxic for human beings.
  • Non-distilled alcoholic beverages like wine contain relatively harmless trace amounts of methanol. 
    • However, during distillation, both ethanol and methanol are concentrated. Thus, if done incorrectly, distillation can lead to an end product containing high quantities of toxic methanol.
    • Methanol has a boiling point of 64.7 °C, lower than that of ethanol 78.37 °C. During distillation, when the mixture reaches 64.7 °C, the pot collecting concentrated alcohol begins to fill up with a highly toxic chemical. This must be discarded for the end product to be safe. Further, it is crucial to maintain a temperature of above 78.37 °C but below 100°C (the boiling point of water) to obtain safe-to-consume yet potent liquor. 
  • Commercial distillers have sophisticated equipment and multiple checks to maintain the accuracy of the process.
  • However, hooch-makers have no temperature control. This means that the distillation process lacks the accuracy that is crucial to making it safe and effective.

Risks posed by hooch:

  • Improperly prepared alcohol is often adulterated with toxic substances like organic waste, battery acid, and industrial methanol to compensate for overboiling and dilution.
    • This can make the liquor highly intoxicating, causing severe effects such as blackouts and memory loss, and in extreme cases, can be deadly due to high concentrations of methanol.
  • Methanol or methyl alcohol can cause impaired vision, high toxicity and metabolic acidosis, a condition in which the body produces excessive acid that cannot be flushed out by the kidneys.


  • The treatment for this is to administer Fomepizole and ethanol intravenously. 
    • However, fomepizole can be expensive and unavailable in many parts of India. 
      • In such cases, doctors administer a mixture of ethanol and water (1:1 ratio). 
    • Ethanol inhibits methanol’s conversion into toxins and helps flush it out of the body, either naturally or through dialysis.

Way forward:

  • Public Health and Legal Perspectives:
    • The need for a national consensus on alcohol consumption policies.
    • Consideration of public health science and international experiences.
    • Revisiting cannabis policies in the context of its historical use and international trends.
  • Policy Reform:
    • Legalization and quality control of indigenous alcohol production.
    • Zero tolerance for alcohol-related offences, such as selling to underage drinkers.
    • Evolution of treatment for harmful drinking, moving beyond in-patient deaddiction centres.
  • Comprehensive Action: Urges the government to shut down illicit brewing operations decisively.
  • Public Health Campaigns: Emphasize the importance of educating the public on the dangers of consuming illicit liquor.

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