Another 50 people fell ill after consuming the home-brewed liquor and were being treated in hospitals in Etah district in Uttar Pradesh state, senior police officer Ajay Shankar Rai said. The Press Trust of India news agency put the death toll at 21.
Mr Rai said the victims bought the alcohol from a village shop on Friday evening and started falling ill and dying. The shop owner, who has been arrested, was selling a pouch of tainted liquor for a mere 15 rupees (€0.20), six times cheaper than the legal drink, he said.
Most of the victims were poor farmers and labourers, looking for a cheap means of intoxication. Illicit liquor is a hugely profitable industry, with manufacturers operating from homes, hidden warehouses and even forests.
Many of India’s poor buy cheap home-brewed liquor made of syrups and medicines that are spiked with methyl alcohol and other industrial spirits to give it a kick.
District Magistrate Ajay Yadav ordered an investigation, but an excessive use of methyl alcohol in the liquor appears to have caused the deaths.
Authorities have suspended six officials, including four policemen, for allowing the sale of illicit liquor in Etah district, nearly 240km south-west of Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh state capital.