Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT-INDIA: Officials ‘Helpless’ as Spurious Oil Kills 50

Dev Raj

NEW DELHI, Sep 6 1998 (IPS) - Few can resist the aroma of fish fried in pungent mustard oil. But no one smelt anything fishy about toxic mustard oil supplies in the capital until hundreds fell violently ill with dropsy – 50 of whom died by Sunday.

Although the first dropsy case surfaced on August 5, it was not until the fifth of September that federal investigators were ordered to probe large-scale adulteration of mustard oil with oil extracted from the seeds of the deadly argemone mexicana weed.

All through August, as deaths and misery mounted, the nationalist, ultra-right, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules Delhi state and leads the federal ruling coalition was content with blaming ‘foreign conspirators,’ for obvious administrative failure.

But last Friday, with deaths and hospitalisations unabating, federal home minister Lal Krishna Advani had no choice but to order the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to discover whether the adulteration was caused by greedy traders or whether there was indeed a grand conspiracy by trans-nationalinterests

The National Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), D. Raja accused the BJP government of bending over backwards to please either oil traders or oil importers. “Either way, ordinary people have as usal fallen prey to traders who are the main supporters of the BJP,” he said.

As the government reluctantly banned the sale of mustard oil, it cleared the path for the landing of a controversial order for a million tonnes of soyabeans from the U.S, suspected to be mixed with genetically engineered seed rejected by the European Union.

Malaysian palmolein, not normally acceptable to the Indian palate began to flood the market while Canadian rapeseed oil or ‘Canola’ which is genetically engineered for herbicide tolerance has finally got its foot in the door.

Leading activists concerned with food security such as Dr. Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) and Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security (FBFS) went with the ‘foreign conspiracy’ rather than the ‘local trader,’ theory.

Shiva pointed to how argemone oil has always been used as an additive to mustard oil for extra pungency but never in such high proportions. While less than one percent addition is acceptable, samples collected showed levels of argemone oil of upto 30 percent.

“Moreover, automotive oil and polybromides were also found to have been used as adulterants, clearly pointing forces more powerful than local traders at work,” Shiva said.

Sharma said while consumers have paid with their lives and health for the alleged conspiracy, the real victims were the farmers who grow mustard as well as honest traders who may not have suspected the deadly nature of their merchandise.

“Small traders simply cannot afford to completely destroy the established market for mustard oil although they cannot be absolved of indulging in limited adulteration for maximising profits,” Sharma said.

Intriguingly, such was the extent of the adulteration that the government had to ban well-known brands of mustard oil including “Dhara” marketed by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), known the world over for its role in India’s ‘white revolution.’

Said NDDB representative, Anil Hari Mowar, “We were the first to order an inquiry into how the oil we market came to be contaminated – there is a strong case for sabotage.”

But politicians like the CPI’s D. Raja and the Congress party’s Dr. Narendra Nath, who leads the Opposition in the Delhi state Assembly who are sure that mustard oil manufacturers may not be so innocent after all.

“The fact is there has been an unprecedented and unwarranted rise in prices of vegetables and other commodities of daily use which could not have happened without the blessings of the BJP,” Raja said.

“Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made a solemn promise on Republic Day on August 15 that there would be a crackdown on blackmarketeers and hoarders who were artifically hiking prices but what actually happened was worse,” Raja said.

Said Nath, “Many Union ministers and the Delhi government in fact provided protection to the oil manufacturers and were reluctant to take action against them until the courts were forced to intervene.” Last week the Delhi High Court ordered its own independent enquiry.

Nath also blamed the corruption-ridden, Department of Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) for failing to carry out routine tests which could have averted the tragedy. “There has been seventy percent decline sample testing,” he said.

Such was the level of corruption indulged in by the officials of the PFA that, two years ago, its director Ashok Bakshi ordered suspension of all checks and raids without his express permission.

That leaves Indian consumers at the mercy of oil manufacturers and traders who are not bound to obtain certification guaranteeing the quality of their products as is the practice in most countries.

Says M.K. Mandal, Adviser to the government on Agricultural Marketing, “Only ten percent of oil manufactureres opt for the ‘Agmark’ certificate of quality on their products – if the certificate is withdrawn they can still sell their prodcuts.”

The Agmark certifiction is compuslory for all exports and guarantees conformity to strict standards alid down by the government. “The Agmark should, in fact, be made compulsory for all food products,” Mandal said.

According to Shailaja Chandra, Additional Director General of Health, much depends on the political will that individual state governments really have in disciplining manufacturers and traders.

“Until then food adulteration will remain a fact of life,” Chandra said pointing to a recent scandal in which milk vendors were found ‘manufacturing’ their own milk by mixing up a concoction of vegetable oil and detergent.

“We have long been demanding a strengthening of the PFA machinery but get very little response from the state governments – food products are regularly adulterated in this country although this time it has been grossly criminal,” she said.

Meanwhile, worried housewives are forced to look out for themselves by maintaining their own mini testing laboratories in their kitchens. “After the mustard oil deaths, I just cannot afford to take any chances,” said Naintara a Delhi housewife.

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