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Chilli crime stings, 21 years on

New Delhi, May 30: The Supreme Court has refused to let off a trader convicted of mixing ash in chilli powder, saying “no benevolence” can be shown to those who indulge in adulteration of food.

The court rejected the plea of Delhi grocer Mithilesh Kumar that the incident occurred in 1993 and as 21 years had passed, his three-month jail term should be quashed.

Kumar’s lawyer had also contended that putting ash in chilli powder was not an offence grave enough to warrant imprisonment.

Delhi High Court had cited the time gap and Kumar’s status as a “small-time trader” to reduce his initial punishment from a year to three months.

But the apex court did not agree.

“We are of the view that no further benevolence can be shown to the appellant, more so, when it is a case of food adulteration. There is no special circumstance which may warrant reducing the sentence below the minimum. The appeal is accordingly dismissed,” a bench of Justices B.S. Chauhan and A.K. Sikri said in a recent judgment.

The bench ordered Kumar, out on bail after having served time for only 12 days so far, to surrender within four weeks to serve the rest of his sentence. If he fails to do so, the chief judicial magistrate of Delhi shall take him into custody and send him to jail, the court said.

Officials of the Food Safety Authority had raided Kumar’s shop in March 1993 and found his stock of chilli powder adulterated with salt and ash.

The trial court had in 2002 sentenced him to a year and fined him Rs 3,000. If he didn’t pay, he would have to serve three months more.

In 2009, the high court dismissed his appeal against the conviction but reduced his sentence to three months. While reducing the prison term, the high court reasoned that the incident occurred 21 years ago and that the convict was a “small-time” trader.

Despite regulatory provisions in India that prohibit the adulteration of food or farm products, food safety specialists have documented numerous instances of adulteration, but mainly the addition of banned synthetic colours.

One study conducted by scientists in Lucknow about seven years ago had found that among 1,199 samples of coloured eatables sold in the market, about 31 per cent samples contained non-permitted colours.

The study also indicated that the adulteration with non-permitted substances is typically higher in products sold in rural areas than in urban markets.