The murder of Nashik additional collector Yashwant Sonawane by the Maharashtra kerosene mafia has deeply shocked the country. It was particularly significant to me since my father, who passed away last year, was an upright Indian Administrative Service officer of the Maharashtra cadre. Among the many stories about his courageous decisions was one on a midnight crackdown on adulterated liquor when he was district collector of Raigad in the early 1970s.
Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns
Adulteration is not new in India but has now insidiously grown into an omnipresent monster. Kerosene adulteration has become a multi-crore racket and the people behind it have grown so powerful that they dare to burn a conscientious civil servant to death.
This column has earlier pointed to the ubiquitous practice of adulterating fruits with carcinogenic chemicals in wholesale markets across the country. After the Sonawane tragedy, the malaise and scale of adulteration of commodities has again risen to the top of my mind.
I have been reading the consumer awareness advertisements regularly released in newspapers by the consumer affairs ministry that are captioned Jago Grahak Jago. I like the inherent honesty of the ads. The ad minces no words when it says, “food adulteration is a serious problem” and goes on to add, “you, however, can test the purity of the product yourself”.
This acknowledges that adulteration has grown beyond the government’s control. In other words, since it cannot protect you systemically, it does the next best thing by telling you that you must protect yourself. Consumers must therefore reconcile themselves to this fact and be aware of the following handy household tips to separate grain from the chaff.
For instance, synthetic milk turns yellow on boiling, and if you rub a drop between your fingers, will turn soapy. Sugar and salt can be contaminated with chalk powder, which in a solution will turn white and the insoluble impurities will settle down as sediment at the bottom.
The ads warn that chilli powder could be mixed with brick powder grit or sawdust. If a sample is mixed in water, the sawdust will float. The brick powder will settle at the bottom in a mixture of chloroform and carbon tetrachloride—not really common household items.
The common adulterant in tea leaves is artificial colour, which can be detected by putting some leaves on a piece of wet paper. Yellow, pink or red colour on the paper indicates the presence of the impurity. The experiment for tea dust would fascinate a junior school child. You spread the tea sample on a paper and move a magnet over it. If there are iron filings, they will stick to the magnet.
Mustard seeds could be substituted with harmful argemone seeds and the way to differentiate them is to break the seeds and look for the yellow of mustard instead of the white of the imposter.
Coriander powder may have—take a deep breath here—horse dung in it. The ads say that we should soak some in water and “dung will float and can easily be detected by its foul smell”. The test for detecting sugar water in honey is kinda fun. Put a bit on a small piece of paper or cloth and burn the thing. If adulterated, the sample will make a chirping sound. Some kid might make parents buy dubious honey just to keep doing this.
Since all festivities are now discoloured by adulterated khoya (dried milk) and false silver foil on sweets, we have been warned about these as well. The silver is often aluminium. If you want to be sure, you have to burn it, and if the residue is a white ball of the same mass, it is silver. If all you have left is grey, black ash, you know you’ve been had. Not the best way to celebrate, checking sweets for impurities, but such is life.
There’s more help at hand. Chennai-based C+ONCERT Trust, a non-profit organization, sells a spot test kit for Rs500 that contains chemicals and simple accessories to detect adulteration in 31 common kitchen commodities.
Food adulteration rocked the Lok Sabha last August with a Congress member of Parliament citing various instances of the crime and asking the health minister to mete out capital punishment for the offence that kills people in large numbers. He pointed to vacancies in enforcement agencies and the shortage of laboratories to test food items as reasons for rampant adulteration.
Even discounting for parliamentary drama, it is true that the implementation of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954 remains woefully inadequate. Last Diwali, 10 tonnes of spurious khoya disappeared hours after it was seized in east Delhi. In January, the Gujarat government admitted in the state high court that 80% of those charged with adulterating food have been acquitted due to laxity and delays by the government in prosecuting them.
There are lessons to be learnt from our formidable Asian competitor. In 2008, some 300,000 children fell sick and seven died in China after a harmful chemical called melamine was found in powdered milk for infants. The scandal seriously tarnished China’s food safety reputation. Three people were executed over the affair in January 2009. Subsequently, the government asked judges to use their powers to the maximum to punish food safety breaches, including awarding death penalty. Perhaps consumers must run their own campaign fittingly titled Jago Sarkar Jago.
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 email@example.com