I do not know how many of you remember the dreadful dropsy epidemic that took a heavy toll in August 1998 in Delhi. As hundreds and thousands of consumers suffered the deleterious effects of adulteration of mustard oil with the deadly argemone oil, the local administration floundered in every respect. It was clueless about the origin of the adulteration, the extent of it and, in short, found itself in no position to handle the problem, that eventually resulted in the death of at least 40 persons. Over 2000 people suffered the debilitating effects of dropsy during that time.
Buckwheat (kuttu) flour adulteration witnessed during the Navaratra celebrations is a grim reminder that we have learnt no lessons from the earlier tragedy, and the administration, even today, is in no position to prevent such incidents that completely undermine consumers’ faith in the government’s ability to ensure the safety of food that they buy.
What is even more shocking here (in respect of kuttu flour adulteration) is that the problem was not localised. It was not restricted to just one area or one retail outlet. As hundreds of people rushed to hospitals with symptoms of food poisoning such as vomiting, dizziness and diarrhoea, it soon became apparent that the problem was not even restricted to one city, Delhi. Food poisoning from consuming kuttu flour was reported from as many as seven states — Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab, besides Delhi. And as can be expected, the law-enforcement agencies were totally clueless about how it happened, or how widespread the problem was. Or, for that matter, the source of the problem.
In most developed countries, food safety is ensured through a comprehensive food safety management system.In other words, if there is a problem with any food at the retail level, one can immediately go back to the source of that food and trace its movement till it reaches the consumer. Such a system not only makes the task of identifying the source of adulteration or contamination quick and easy, but it also helps in product recall.
In addition, regular food sampling and testing at the retail level also ensures that shops store only safe food and remove from the shop shelves, food unfit for consumption. We, unfortunately, are yet to have such systems in place.
In response to a long-pending demand from customers for a regulatory body to oversee food standards and safety, the Central Government finally brought in the year 2006, the Food Safety and Standards Act and constituted in 2008, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. The idea was to consolidate nine different laws (including the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act) that were administered by eight ministries and bring them under the umbrella of one authority. More important, the new law was designed to raise food standards in the country and bring them to the international level and at the same time, enforce those standards. Simply put, to oversee food safety and protect consumer interest through a scientific system of regulating food.
However, the food safety and standards rules are yet to be notified by the Centre, and the new Act and the rules are yet to replace the older, archaic laws. How many more years do we have to wait for the government to put in place a proper system to ensure food safety?
In fact today, if the new law was in force, all the victims of kuttu adulteration would have got compensation varying from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh. In its absence, people have to file a class action suit before the court for relief.
I would urge all victims to immediately come together and do just that. Keep your receipts of purchase safe; so also, samples, if any, of the adulterated kuttu flour. Most important, you must have a proof of your having taken ill through hospital prescriptions. Even if you have not bought the atta yourself, you can still claim compensation, so long as you can show that you suffered on account of its consumption. As far as compensation is concerned, go by what the Food Safety and Standards Act prescribe.
Alternatively, all the
victims can pressure the government to file a class action complaint
on their behalf. Under the Consumer Protection Act, the state or the
Central Government, too, can also file a complaint on behalf of
consumers. This, I think, is the least that the government can do for