A PROBLEM OF PURITY
The recent raids against milk chilling units in Madhya Pradesh show that food adulteration is a clear and present danger
In the last week of July, Special Task Force (STF) sleuths disguised as doodhias (a colloquial term for milkmen) began surveiling the Van Khandeshwari milk chilling plant at Ambah, in Morena, Madhya Pradesh. They had received credible intelligence that the sale of spurious milk in the area had spiked, likely due to the festive season, when demand surges. And when they compared the amount of raw milk being delivered to Van Khandeshwari to the amount leaving it, a huge mismatch had been revealed.
Despite expecting to find adulteration taking place, when cops raided the plant two days later, the scale of the operation they found was stunning. The plant was stocked with hundreds of kilos of chemicals, oils and detergents. Thousands of litres of ‘synthetic milk’ were being produced and sent on to packaging and distribution units. This packaged ‘milk’ was then being sold all across the region, including in major cities like the national capital, Gurgaon and Noida.
Allegedly, what the STF found was only the tip of the iceberg. Sources say that both chemical suppliers and local officials are part of the larger racket. Since the state’s Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) officials generally spend years posted to the same region, some say that unhealthily cosy relationships have developed between dairy units and the authorities responsible for overseeing them. What is also telling is that those in the Gwalior-Chambal region who can afford to do so generally keep their own cattle for milk—locals are undoubtedly all too aware of the scale of the racket.
A week after the raid on Van Khandeshwari, a state-wide crackdown was launched, with agencies expanding their investigation to include products other than milk. Those arrested in the raids—including those from Khandeshwari and nearby regions, including Morena, Gwalior and Ujjain—have been charged under the National Security Act (NSA). However, these events have led to a number of questions: what are the economics of the racket, and who
are the key players? Is the government response adequate, or is it merely a stopgap arrangement to quell public anger? And, most importantly, why is adulteration thriving in Bhind and Morena?
Bhind and Morena—districts that were once infested with dacoit gangs— have large Gujjar populations that are extensively engaged in cattle-rearing and associated activities, including dairy. Agriculture is not very remunerative, given the undulating, ravinemarked lands of the region. Manufacturing is almost entirely absent. Consequently, milk and dairy products constitute an important part of the rural economy. The Chambal region also has a long-standing reputation for lawlessness and weak governance, leading to rampant corruption.
Adulteration, for instance, is not limited to the dairy industry. The STF is now closing in on a thriving edible oil adulteration racket in the region as well. Since mustard is an important local crop, several oil mills also operate in the area, and there are frequent reports of mustard oil being adulterated with cheap rice bran and palm oil. “Adulterated oil is prepared as per market requirements and depending on the taste that is in demand in a given region,” says a worker at one of Morena’s oil mills, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Everyone is involved, from inter-state [authorities], the food and drugs department and the police.”
HOW IT HAPPENS
The dairy industry begins with cattle farmers and transporters. Transporters collect milk from farmers twice a day, delivering it to local chilling units. Before being accepted, the milk is checked for purity—not regularly, but randomly—using a lactometer. Once accepted, the milk is chilled to about 1 degree Celsius, before being loaded onto tankers and sent to processing units, where it is packaged/ processed into milk powder, etc. Generally speaking, adulteration takes place at chilling units, simply because of the volume of milk passing through these locations. The process by which ‘synthetic milk’ is made involves the use of refined oil or vanaspati, soap and shampoo, aside from several other chemicals. In tests conducted by lactometers—which measure the fat content of a liquid—this sort of spurious milk passes with flying colours, as a result of the oil mixed into it.
The scale of the problem is enormous. “In Bhind and Morena alone, there are estimated to be more than 200 chilling units,” says Amit Singh, superintendent of police, STF, Gwalior. And the seizures made by STF sleuths from
ADULTERATION TAKES PLACE MAINLY IN THE CHILLING UNITS, DUE TO THE VOLUMES THAT TRANSIT THROUGH THEM
WHAT’S IN THERE? Milk being collected at Van Khandeshwari chilling plant, Morena