Kashmiris, who annually consume 83,000 metric tons of imported tropical fruits such as mangoes, papayas and bananas, are doing more harm than good to themselves as half of these are ripened by a carcinogenic and banned toxic chemical – calcium carbide.
People are accusing Jammu and Kashmir’s health authorities of indolence as experts have warned of its disastrous effects on the health of populace already recouping from the devastating consequences of 22-years of violence since 1989.
Official sources and traders said that more and more fruit dealers are procuring tropical fruits not produced in valley like mango, banana, papaya, orange and tomato in raw form only to ripen them in the valley using calcium carbide. The chemical, used in gas welding of metal alloys, has been banned across the country for artificial ripening.
“Artificial ripening of native fruits of Kashmir such as apple, pear, apricot, peach and cheery is neither needed nor possible. It is the fruits from outside on which dealers have increasingly started practice of using dangerous chemicals like calcium carbide,” said health officer of Srinagar municipal corporation, Dr Rubeena Shaheen.
“Actually the ripened fruits procured from outside the valley have more risk of getting spoiled during transportation. So to have some extra-bucks fruit dealers are resorting to this unhealthy practice, she said.
The process of fruit ripening is chiefly regulated by a gaseous hormone ethylene (C2H2) produced and released by rapidly-growing plant tissues naturally. And the use of ethylene by farmers or dealers in artificial ripening of fruit is a universally accepted and standard phenomenon.
On the other hand, calcium carbide when dissolved in water (moisture in air or water content of fruit) produces acetylene gas which is analogous to ethylene in ripening process but at the same time carcinogenic in nature.
This gas may affect the neurological system, cause headache, dizziness, mood disturbances, sleepiness, mental confusion, memory loss, cerebral oedema and seizures. Doctors state that free radicals from carbide play a major role in the ageing process as well as in the onset of cancer, heart-disease, stroke, arthritis and allergies.
“The chemical has also been observed to produce traces of arsenic and phosphorous which are extremely dangerous to human health,” Dr Shaheen said.
After increasing complaints by locals as well as health experts, the Srinagar Municipal Corporation started raiding various fruit markets and go-downs for the past some months but that has failed to stop the practice.
President of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, Hameed Punjabi acknowledged the prevalence of the practice among importers of fruit. “More than 50 percent of dealers procuring fruit from outside the state are using calcium carbide for ripening. Being an advisory body we have been motivating people against it but the strictness of law enforcement agencies and health authorities can curb the practice fully,” he said.
“I think government has been shamelessly insensitive and inert overt the issue. When municipality can raid a small milkman inside a locality why not have surprise-checks of fruit markets and godowns,” he said.
Reports and official sources said that the Parimpora market, which is biggest market of summer capital Srinagar, has been notorious for the use of carbides.
Deputy director horticulture, planning and marketing, AR Wazir informed that much of the fruit procured from outside is dumped in Parimpora market of Srinagar. “Annually, Kashmir imports 83,000 metric tons of fruit like mango, banana, papaya, orange, lime and grapes from outside. The first three fruits contribute 50 percent of the total import,” Wazir said.
Various fruit markets of the Valley are supplied fruit and vegetable supplies from the Fruit Mandi of Parimpora. Trade insiders said that many dealers at the Mandi have two stores. In one store there are those fruits or vegetables which have already been ripened by the wholesale dealer to sell them at higher prices than the raw fruits. The retailers have two choices: either to take ripened fruits by paying surplus money or take raw fruits or vegetables with packets of calcium carbide (a very cheap chemical).
Government officials and concerned ministers seemed too busy to respond to the issue. Hindustan Times reached Health Minister Sham Lal Sharma and minister of state for horticulture and health Javaid Ahmad Dar continuously for two days for a comment. Despite promises of call-back by the personal secretaries of the ministers, there was no response.
HT called SMC commissioner G.N Qasba, at least three times but he avoided the call citing ‘busy in a meeting’ as the reason. However Satish Gupta, controller drug and food organisation accepted that the practice has ‘become a menace’. “Recently in a meeting of divisional administration, specific orders were issued to deputy commissioners and designated officers of various districts to be proactive in order to curb the menace,” Gupta said. “We are trying our best,” he said.