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Exposed! How mangoes are poisoned every day at APMC market

A visit to the APMC in Vashi revealed that calcium carbide — referred to as ‘carpet’ by traders — which is known to cause cancer, food poisoning, nausea etc — is being used indiscriminately to ripen the fruit faster, so as to increase sales

Think before you sink your teeth into those juicy, delicious mangoes. For, they could have been ripened artificially using calcium carbide, a deadly chemical that is known to be carcinogenic.

Also read: CaC2 may cause cancer, blindness, seizures

Many calcium carbide pouches are tucked away in each crate of mangoes. The fumes are enough to ripen the mangoes, even if they don’t touch the fruit. The moment the colour of the mangoes turns yellow, the pouches are removed. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Many calcium carbide pouches are tucked away in each crate of mangoes. The fumes are enough to ripen the mangoes, even if they don’t touch the fruit. The moment the colour of the mangoes turns yellow, the pouches are removed. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

While the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act, 2006, says that calcium carbide is banned, use of the compound by traders to ripen the fruit is rampant at the APMC, Vashi fruit market.

Also read: Chemical trail - How the mango is ripened artificially

The entire act is done in the open, and law-enforcing agencies (FDA) turn a blind eye to it. In its foray into the market, mid-day learnt that the chemical is available within every 200 metres inside the fruit market.

Popularly known as ‘carpet’, it is available for as cheap as Rs 100 a kg, which is sufficient to ripen over 100 dozen of raw mangoes. In blatant disregard for child labour laws, minors are exposed to this hazardous chemical.

Along with some casual labourers, they get a paltry sum of Rs 6 for packing a dozen raw mangoes with calcium carbide, or Rs 20 for a box, irrespective of the number of mangoes inside it. 

Buying the chemical
Calcium carbide or ‘carpet’, as it is referred to in APMC fruit market, is easily available at every corner stationery outlet inside the market.

Also known as ‘Carpet’, the chemical is sold in envelopes at almost every corner stationery store in the APMC market. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
Also known as ‘Carpet’, the chemical is sold in envelopes at almost every corner stationery store in the APMC market. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

While its sale is restricted to strangers and unknown faces, insiders can get their hands on it whenever they wish to. This reporter had to visit almost three outlets before he could succeed in convincing a retailer to sell the chemical to him. The attendant at the shop initially denied having the chemical, and when showed the residue of greyish-white powder lying on the floor of his shop, he admitted to having it and handed over a packet filled with calcium carbide.

mid-day successfully bought around half a kilo of the chemical
mid-day successfully bought around half a kilo of the chemical

On weighing, it was found to be less than 450 grams, for which we were charged Rs 50, with a few brown envelopes thrown in free of cost. 

Calcium carbide (the white powder) is spilled on the market floor, with envelopes containing it strewn about everywhereCalcium carbide (the white powder) is spilled on the market floor, with envelopes containing it strewn about everywhere

The entire market has the chemical’s stain. On the ground one can spot a pile of used pouches at various places. Sweepers were cleaning up the garbage there.

How they are ripened
Nutpur Rehman (44), a retail trader at the fruit market, hails from Jharkhand and has been in the business of selling mangoes for over 15 years at the APMC market, where he stays from January to June (mango season).

Nutpur Rehman (standing) pays R1 lakh for operating a mango stall for six months at the market
Nutpur Rehman (standing) pays R1 lakh for operating a mango stall for six months at the market

He rents a gala of 225 sq feet approximately, paying Rs 1 lakh rent for the period. He sells, on an average, 50 to 100 boxes of mangoes daily and claims to make a profit of Rs 50 behind every box after taking care of his overhead expenses, including packing, handling, storing, electricity, labour, food etc.

Once the outer layer of mangoes turns yellow, the calcium carbide envelopes are removedOnce the outer layer of mangoes turns yellow, the calcium carbide envelopes are removed

Like Rehman, many retail traders have rented premises inside the fruit market and have stocked boxes of raw mangoes. All of them use calcium carbide for ripening the raw mangoes.

Anees Shaikh, a labourer at the site, explained to this reporter that the number of envelopes may increase, depending on the quantity of mangoes in the boxes — which is usually 3, 4 or 5 dozen.

The chemical is put inside small paper envelopes and retailers keep one or two packets at the bottom and side of the raw mango boxes. The space in between is covered with hayThe chemical is put inside small paper envelopes and retailers keep one or two packets at the bottom and side of the raw mango boxes. The space in between is covered with hay

The chemical reaction begins and generates heat, its fumes helping ripen the fruit. The trader ensures that the envelope is not kept for more than 12 to 36 hours – they have to keep monitoring the chemical reactions on the mangoes.

The moment the colour of the outer layer of mangoes turns yellow, the envelope is removed. The chemical inside has changed from crystal solid to greyish white powder.

When asked the reason for using such a method to ripen the mangoes, Rehman confessed, “The natural process of ripening take nearly 7 to 12 days. It is just impossible to even think of running a business with such high overheads. With ‘carpet’, the entire process is faster and quicker.”

When asked about the health hazards to his labourers and customers, he said, “We are in this business for over a decade and till now everyone is healthy. Even we eat the same fruit.”

Minors being exposed
Feroze Shaikh (17) hails from Ranchi in Jharkand, and has been working at the fruit market for the last eight years, between January to June every year.

13-year-old Mohammad Sabir Shaikh has dropped out from school to ripen mangoes with ‘carpet’ at the APMC market in Vashi

13-year-old Mohammad Sabir Shaikh has dropped out from school to ripen mangoes with ‘carpet’ at the APMC market in Vashi

He has studied till Std IX this year, he has even gotten his younger brother Mohammed Sabir Shaikh (13), who is a school dropout. Soon after the season is over, they will return to their hometown and come back after monsoon, to sell fish in Mumbai markets, a job that his father Mohammed Irfan has been doing for decades in Mumbai.

Feroze and his brother Sabir both take up packing assignments even outside the market, but their rates are fixed — Rs 6 per dozen of mangoes or Rs 20 for per box. On an average, Feroze is able to pack 40 to 50 boxes of mangoes with carpet in less than two hours, and on an average they earn anywhere between Rs 600 to Rs 1,000 every day.

They manage to save approximately Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000 by the end of the term, after taking care of their expenses. Their daily expenses including Rs 15 for using the common toilet and bathroom with soap, Rs 25 for tea in a day, Rs 50 to Rs 75 for meals etc.

An elderly man known as ‘Chachaji’, who has been at the market for nearly two decades, and with whom Sabir was spotted, said, “He is an all-rounder; he knows all the work and is being trained.” When asked if the chemical didn’t burn their palm, the elderly man said, “We are so used to it that we get no sensation of heat any more.”

The raw deal
Umesh Lanjekar (50), a Ratnagiri-based farmer who has been cultivating mangoes for decades, has minutely studied usage of calcium carbide by traders at APMC.

Lanjekar elucidated that APMC traders emphasised on taking raw mangoes from farmers – these are then chemically ripened and sold to retailers. The strategy behind this is that when raw, the fruit doesn’t show many faults.

On ripening, it develops black spots and other anomalies, which renders it unprofitable, and these cannot be sold in the market. Farmers are paid only for the good product and not for the fruit with blemishes. Thus, with raw mangoes being chemically ripened, APMC traders are able to garner profit.

Farmers, too, cannot be let off the hook completely. When the mango season begins, farmers race to send as many mangoes as they can to earn profits. In this race, a lot of raw green mangoes are also dispatched, which are then ripened with the use of calcium carbide.

In this way, the market gets saturated within a few weeks of the season, after which the prices start falling. Farmers go into losses in the long term, in exchange for short-term profits at the beginning of the season. Lanjekar further added, “Another factor responsible for green mangoes in the market is that farmers employ unskilled labour from other regions in order to cut labour costs.

These labouerers, naturally, cannot differentiate between raw and ripe mangoes very easily, as it is a very tedious job to pluck mangoes while balancing oneself on the tree, or to recognise a ripe mango from a raw one from a huge distance under the scorching sun, while plucking the fruit from the ground by using special tools.

The other side
Sanjay Pansare, director of APMC fruit market in Vashi, said, “I do not believe minors are engaged in labour work. If it is true, I will immediately take strict action and will even speak to traders and ask them to refrain from such acts. Even traders who are on rental have to follow the APMC rules and submit the papers for police verifications. I will also alert the security staff to be extra vigilant.”

On usage of calcium carbide
Pansare admitted that calcium carbide is being used at the fruit market, but basically by a very small number of retail traders. He added, “The fruit market usually get 1,50,000 boxes of mangoes daily, of which nearly 40 percent of the fruit is exported by following scientific methods of ripening.

Of the remaining 80,000 boxes used for domestic consumption, 60 per cent of the traders still use traditional methods for ripening i.e. keeping raw mangoes in dry grass or in onions. A small number — 20 per cent of retail traders — are using calcium carbide, a method which is being followed for the last few decades.

But why is the government concerned about mangoes only? Why isn’t it banning sale of cigarettes, which causes cancer, or liquor, which damages the liver?

On its health hazards
Pansare rubbished claims made by the state and central government. “While FSS Act has banned calcium carbide, the government has failed to even prove a single case to us of calcium carbide causing cancer or any other ailment.

We have conducted tests on labourers and people working at APMC from a private laboratory in Navi Mumbai, which conducted nearly 150 various tests on the samples for checking all possible side effects of calcium carbide. All results have come negative.

We have written to both the state and central government, including FDA but none of the agencies have responded to our letters. There is no proper planning that has gone in introducing the FSS Act,” he defended.

On FSS Act
“The central government enacted the Act in 2006 but implementation started strictly after 2011. They have copied an act that was followed by European countries, without understanding the working condition and infrastructure facilities available in India.

And if one goes by international standards, then the present APMC market cannot even exist. We are far behind in terms of hygiene and cleanliness.

We traders are willing to contribute 50 per cent of the expenses, provided the government is willing to pump in remaining 50 per cent of the expense for converting the APMC market into a world-class market,” he said.

What steps you can take
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India lists the following steps that can be followed at home to reduce the level of contamination
>> Select fruits and vegetables without spots or necrosis (lesions) and any abnormality.
>> Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly with water, preferably running potable water, before eating and cooking.
>> Purchase fruits and vegetables from known dealers.
>> Peeling of fruits before consumption and vegetables before cooking will reduce exposure to pesticide.
>> Do not buy and consume cut fruits from open market.
>> Throw away fruits and vegetables infected by mould/fungus
>> To minimise the hazards of pesticide residues, discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage.
>> Do not wash fruits and vegetables with detergents, as they may get absorbed inside
>> Ensure the quality of fruits and vegetables by sending them to voluntary testing laboratories
>> Wash your hands with soap and potable water; use clean utensils and a clean cutting board with stainless steel knives

Effects of calcium carbide
>> Known to cause cancer, also causes food poisoning, gastric irritation and mouth ulcers.
>> Risks carryover of toxic materials like arsenic and phosphorus, which are lethal when consumed
>> Ingesting it causes digestive, respiratory and gastrointestinal tract burns, nausea, vomiting, bloating and headache.

Food safety officials react

D P Guha, Joint Director (western region), Food Safety and Standard Authority of India
Calcium carbide is a banned substance. Usage of chemicals in any unscientific manner for ripening of fruits is not permitted and domestic implementation of the act is a state government concern. The State Food Safety Commissioner is empowered to take remedial and corrective measures by educating traders and suppliers about the adverse impact of using banned items like calcium carbide for artificial ripening. Stringent actions under the FSSAI rules can be taken against violators.

Pradip Manik Raut, assistant commissioner, FDA, Thane
We do conduct raids as and when we get tip-offs. Apart from this, two food inspectors are deployed only at APMC to ensure that calcium carbide is not used for artificial ripening. This is a punishable offence under Section 59 of Food Safety and Standard Act 2006, and Regulation 2011. Those found violating the rule could be punished for a jail term of 6 months and a fine up to Rs 1 lakh. In case anyone suffers health hazards due to usage of calcium carbide, the quantum of punishment for a jail term could be 3 years and a fine up to Rs 5 lakh.

Where calcium carbide is used

Fruit Country
Mango Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Senegal, South Africa
Banana Australia, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa, Sudan, Taiwan, Yemen
Citrus fruit Australia, Philippines, South Africa
Plums South Africa
Peaches South Africa
Papaya India, Pakistan
Tomato Australia, Morocco, Philippines

Source: Research paper 'Eating artificially ripened fruits is harmful' by Dr Mohammed Wasim Siddiqui and R S Dhua

1,50,000: No of mango boxes that the APMC market in Vashi gets every day

Rs 100: Cost of a kilo of calcium carbide

Rs 20: Amount paid to the labourers, many of them minors, to put pouches into each box of raw mangoes

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