When Sunil Kiro enjoyed some moonshine to unwind after a hard day's work at a tea estate in India's northeastern Assam state
, he had no idea he would never be able to see again. He was among an estimated 500 victims of a tragedy that swept the region on Feb. 20 when 160 people died and others were left permanently blind
, or with other serious health issues such as damaged kidneys or livers, as a result of locally brewed alcohol that proved toxic to their systems. "Now I am surrounded by darkness. I have to identify people from their voice," said the 38-year-old, who lives in Jorhat district under Dibrugarh Diocese. The deaths in Assam occurred just two weeks after 100 people died from drinking illegal liquor made with household disinfectants and anti-freeze in two other Indian states. There are about six million people working the tea gardens of Assam, making up 17 percent of the state's 31 million population, according to Catholic leaders in the region.
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Eight Catholics in Sunil's diocese lost their lives that day. Anil Kiro, a 39-year-old Catholic village leader (no relation to Sunil), said the diocese has yet to determine how many people were left blind by the poisonous hooch. The tea workers were said to be celebrating after just having received their wages. Local reports claim the bootleg liquor — a local brew known as "sulai" that is typically made with jaggery and ethyl alcohol — was concocted by an elderly woman and her son in Golaghat. Police later identified them as Dhraupadi Oran and her 30-year-old son, Sanju Oran
. They are believed to have replaced the ethyl alcohol with methyl alcohol, which is poisonous. Speaking from his hospital bed, Sunil said he took two drinks that evening, describing this as a common practice among tea garden workers. He remembers sleeping well that night but waking the next day and vomiting before he fainted. He was rushed to a local hospital, which referred him to a government medical college, said his brother-in-law, Sunil Tirkey, who was taking care of him at the hospital. Sunil has a wife and three children. The elder two, aged 10 and 12, stay at a church-run boarding school, while the younger one is in pre-school. As their father, who has no formal schooling, will no longer be able to pluck tea leaves for a living. "I don't know how I will take care of my family," he lamented. He and his wife Meera formerly pulled in 340 rupees (US$5) a day between them, he said. The tragedy has pushed hundreds of families into misery, said Father Caesar Henry of Dibrugarh, who works in the affected area. "Hundreds of survivors are suffering from liver damage and other health complications, which will eventually mean they are unable to lead a normal life," the priest told ucanews.com. Many families in the area were already living a hand-to-mouth existence. The added burden of having to care for sick relatives, coupled with their reduced income, has put them under an almost impossible strain. Church-led groups have responded to the call by visiting the affected families and assisting them to get medical help. They have also organized public awareness programs, including rallies against alcohol abuse, said Sumila Xaxa, a 39-year-old Catholic women's leader. Church volunteers helped the police to destroy what remaining bootleg alcohol they found stored in households and shops. Father Henry said Catholics have in the past approached the police about the illicit brewing going on in some people's homes. "But they never took us seriously, and now we have lost so many lives," he said. Sumila Xaxa said tribal people used to drink home-brewed rice beer, "but after this tragedy we stopped doing that." The British introduced tea to India in the 17th century and built up gardens in the hills of Assam to compete with a Chinese monopoly in the business. They found cheap labor from tribal communities in the adjoining areas of central India. Their decedents continue to work in the gardens. Assam, now the world's largest tea growing region, has 800 large gardens and thousands of smaller ones that produce 800 million kilograms of tea a year on average. The exhausting nature of the work and a lack of entertainment "easily push people to alcohol ... imbibing after work has become habitual," Sumila said. "However, we are making efforts to end this practice," he added. With elections looming, critics wonder why the plight of tea workers, whose votes can prove decisive for at least four of 14 parliamentary seats, are consistently overlooked. "They continue to lack basic facilities like proper housing and drinking water," Anil said. Father Henry said he plans to collaborate with Hindu and Muslim religious leaders to fight "the deep-rooted problem of alcoholism among poor tea garden workers." "The initial talks were very positive. They, too, agree on the need to protect the lives of simple indigenous people," the priest said. The state has 1.1 million Christians, comprising less than 4 percent of its population. That proportion is still higher than the national average of 2.3 percent Christians.