Overloaded India
Milk containers hang from the windows of a passenger train. This is the creative way to make space for other passengers by hanging the containers from the trains' windows.Reuters

Coming down heavily on the central government over the issue of adulterated milk availability, the Supreme Court on Friday suggested that those found involved in adding harmful chemicals to milk should spend a lifetime behind bars. It further said that the current punishment of six months' imprisonment has hardly been able to curb the crime in the country.

The apex court questioned the Centre over repeated delay in amending the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA), 2006, for which an ultimatum was served by the court in March 2014.

The SC voiced the concern in response to a petition filed four years ago by spiritual guru Swami Achyutanand Tirth of Haridwar.

"Since in India traditionally infants/children are fed milk, adulteration of milk and its products is a concern and stringent measures need to be taken to combat it. The consumption of adulterated milk and adulterated milk products is hazardous to human health," the court said.

A three-member bench headed by Chief Justice TS Thakur reminded government of its own admission in parliament four months ago when it said that two out of three people in the country drink milk adulterated with detergent, caustic soda, urea or paint.

"As observed by this court earlier, it will be in order if the central government considers making suitable amendments in the penal provisions at par with the provisions contained in the State amendments to the Indian Penal Code. It is also desirable that Union of India revisits the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006(FSSA) to revise the punishment for adulteration making it more deterrent in cases where the adulterant can have an adverse impact on health," the SC bench said.

The apex court also issued several directives, including the implementation of FSSA, 2006 in a more effective manner, sending clear warnings to dairy owners and dealers that if the milk is found adulterated they will have to serve extreme punishment, identification of areas where the risk of milk adulteration is relatively higher, setting up laboratories and milk testing vans, and also putting up a website that raises awareness about laws dealing with milk adulteration.

The court said that just because any serious case of illness or death has not been reported due to milk adulteration does not mean that there should be laxity in dealing with crime.

As per the Indian Council of Medical Research, presence of detergents in milk can cause food poisoning and other gastrointestinal complications. Its high alkaline level can also damage body tissue and destroy proteins. Other synthetic components can cause heart problems, cancer or even death. While the immediate effect of drinking milk adulterated with urea, caustic soda and formalin is gastroenteritis, the long-term effects are far more serious.