Everytime I buy fruits at the local market, for some years now I have been mildly disturbed by how perfect they all seem nowadays. The deep orange of papayas, the perfectly polished yellow bananas, the over-plump melons, mangoes that look like buxom yesteryear actresses.
I have seen this across different Indian cities I have lived in or visited and stayed long enough to buy fruits. Across the markets of this country, fruits do not look or taste the way they used to when we were growing up. They no longer look like nature intended them to be—imperfect, with blotches here and there, some slightly misshapen and each a tiny bit different from the other. Just like human beings. But they don’t look natural because they no longer are natural.
Many things happen as fruits ripen naturally. The ripening process makes a fruit more appealing—the colour of the skin changes, the acids causing sourness are broken down, starch becomes sugar, pectin is softened and an aroma is produced. Suddenly, we have a soft, juicy, sweet, fragrant, colourful offering. This magical change is due to ethylene that plant tissues produce naturally, which then triggers the enzymes that cause ripening.
Given the compulsions of the modern economy, fruit is transported in various stages of rawness and put in large refrigerated warehouses where they are exposed to ethylene gas in low concentration—at a level safe for humans—to induce the ripening process.
That much artificiality we have to live with in these times. But what we should not be living with is the widespread and blatant use of the carcinogenic chemical calcium carbide oxytocin to produce ethylene gas. Unscrupulous traders—which means almost all traders in India—don’t want to take the long route of putting fruits to regulated amounts of ethylene gas in warehouses.
An easier solution is to wrap a small quantity of calcium carbide in a paper packet and keep it near a pile of bananas, or a box of mangoes, for a couple of days. The moisture in the fruit reacts with calcium carbide and produces acetylene gas, which hastens the ripening process. Calcium carbide, colloquially called masala, is a gas used for welding steel. It’s cheap, a kilo costs Rs25-30 and can ripen tonnes of fruit. Calcium carbide is a classified carcinogenic, besides causing mouth ulcers and gastric trouble. Acetylene affects the nervous system, triggering anything from dizziness to seizures.
This isn’t some sensational scoop. The health ministry awoke to the gravity of the problem and in June last year, alerted all state food authorities under the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to this. Like in other spheres, there’s a toothless law for this. The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act prohibits the use of calcium carbide to ripen fruits. The punishment is Rs1,000 and six months of imprisonment. That’s all for feeding you the risk of disease and death through fruits. Unethical traders must be laughing their corrupt guts out at this law.
Health is a state subject and while the ministry can crack the whip, the strictness of implementation is up to each state government. The continuing presence of artificial fruits in all wholesale markets shows that no state has really cared, except for random raids on wholesale markets in stray states. So established is the masala-infusing practice that traders are wondering what the sudden fuss is about. The leader of the fruits and vegetables trade in Mumbai has been quoted in a news report last July saying, “Calcium carbide was being used for ripening fruits all across the country from a long time. I fail to understand why raids are being conducted all of a sudden.” If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny.
I find this whole issue appalling for three reasons.
Firstly, we are talking about cancer here, one of mankind’s deadliest diseases. We all know in our friends and families, the most unlikely of candidates—vegetarians, teetotallers, non-smokers, disciplined ascetics—who have been struck by this disease. Research shows traces of carcinogenic substances that insidiously leak into our food and air and water produce toxins that accumulate in the body and affect the metabolism. These trigger the uncontrolled mutations that result in cancer.
It’s such a sly, barely perceptible process of accumulation that it will only show up with time. The toxicity of pesticides is anyway present while the fruit is on the trees. Add to that this chemical coating it receives in the markets before it makes its way to our homes, and multiply that by several years of consumption to understand the threat.
Next, adulteration in lentils and spices is something one can avoid to some extent by buying good, branded commodities or grinding your own. What do we do with fruits? There aren’t any branded fruits that come with a guarantee of safety. Organic is not an easy alternative. It leaves the public utterly helpless.
Fruits are supposed to be God’s gifts to living beings. We offer them in prayer, push our children to eat them daily and prescribe them to ailing patients. People who fast and diet munch them in all innocence. To mess with something that simple and natural feels like a fundamental violation.
So here we are, taxpaying citizens of India, with not even the confidence to perform the age-old ritual of buying fruits in the market. Feeding our children with chemical laden papayas and bananas, whose consequences we don’t know yet. Write back to say how we can deal with this as wronged consumers.
To read all of Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns, go www.livemint.com/toughcustomer
Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org