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Why does India condone corruption?

China recently executed two people involved in the melamine-adulterated milk powder scam. In India, thousands of lives are endangered by spurious drugs and adulterated food, and yet no action seems to be taken. Why, asks Suman Sahai

The list of food scares in China, just in the past one year, includes drug-tainted fish, industrial dye used to colour egg yolk red, pork tainted with a banned feed additive, and melamine-laced milk powder. The melamine scandal, which is the most recent, involved adulterating infant formula with the industrial chemical melamine, which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure. Melamine, used in the manufacture of plastics, was mixed in with milk powder to show greater protein levels on measurement, to get higher prices for the allegedly ‘rich’ milk. 

When the melamine milk powder was discovered just before the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government buried the story so as not to create a scandal ahead of the Olympics where China was showcasing its prowess to the world. Legal proceedings began soon after and recently two people were executed for their involvement in the tragedy that killed six and affected over 300,000, some critically. Most of those taken ill were babies and children. The two accused received the death penalty for producing and selling toxic food and endangering public safety. Nineteen people have been jailed in this connection.  

In another instance, a few months ago, China executed a former director of the food and drug agency for approving fake medicine in exchange for cash. During the tenure of the disgraced drug controller, the State Food and Drug Administration had, from 1997 to 2006, approved six untested drugs that turned out to be fake. It was also found that some drug-makers had used falsified documents to apply for approvals, with the knowledge of the drug controller, in order to bypass safety tests.  

Compare this with the situation in India where it is common knowledge that milk is adulterated with urea and industrial chemicals and made into a potent brew, risking the health and safety of consumers ranging from children to convalescents and pregnant mothers. Spurious drugs are so prevalent that newspapers write about the fact that it is impossible to be certain about the authenticity of drugs, even life-saving drugs, in smaller towns and cities.  

Not just this, people die routinely after drinking adulterated alcohol, or go blind, or are paralysed. Pictures of wailing women seated next to corpses -- victims of ‘hooch tragedies’ -- are commonplace. Children are periodically taken ill with food poisoning after eating the midday meal at school, supplied free by the government. Guests at temple feasts, weddings and religious ceremonies are regularly found to have been taken violently ill or poisoned because of some adulterant. The adulteration of food in India is on a scale that can only be described as ‘epic’. 

This, despite the fact that we have a law on food safety that prescribes food standards and assigns heavy penalties for violators. The Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 spells these standards out in great detail, as it does permissible and banned additives. But all this might as well exist in the ether for all the difference it makes to ensuring the safety of food in the market.  

Food contractors and suppliers are the worst culprits. Government agencies that place such orders are complicit, but the malpractice rages in the private sector as well. And nobody is ever punished. 

When talk turns to corruption, there is a large section of the Indian middle class that switches off, saying it is tired of hearing this “corruption talk”. Every society is corrupt, so we need not flagellate ourselves. Wasn’t the prime minister of a European state charged with corruption? And didn’t British MPs inflate their bills? The Chinese are as bad as us, they claim, if not worse… This may all be true, but the difference is that we in India do not punish our guilty; we condone corruption and let it happen repeatedly and, in the case of food adulteration, we also condone the fact that the lives of innocent people are lost because of greedy people. The difference between us and them is that when corruption is caught in other places, there is a severe price to pay. In the case of China, corrupt people who harm others are executed. In India they wear gold rings on each finger and go scot free.  

(Dr Suman Sahai has a PhD in genetics and heads Gene Campaign, a leading research and advocacy organisation)  

Infochange News & Features, May 2010