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Deceiving the Aam Aadmi: Sting Operations on Food Adulteration

By Diksha Narang

The Consumer Affairs Minister, Ram Vilas Paswan recently said, “Abroad and in the Western world, people cannot imagine that there can be food adulteration. Here in India, we cannot imagine food without adulteration.”[1] This statement is symptomatic of a widespread sentiment that the Indian food economy needs to address: an age-old problem of adulteration. This desire for reform translates into demands for packaged and standardized goods rather than unpacked, and potentially, adulterated products. More elusively, there are calls for ‘quality control’ aligned with international standards. Supermarket chains, corporate food producers, and app-based niche businesses position themselves through a promise that their food is free of adulteration unlike traditional sites of food purchase such as bazaars, mandis, and street economies. These post-liberalization systems of provisioning often entail re-structuring of the food system to shorten supply chains so that the role of middle-men or intermediaries is significantly reduced, since these are the people customarily held responsible for inefficiency, leakages, and crimes like adulteration. Business schools would call this ‘vertical integration.’ As food safety comes to assume an unquestionable mystique, unpacking meanings of adulteration can alert us to what is at stake in this public debate.

A crucial medium through which adulteration is being constituted as an epidemic problem in India is through journalism. The news media frequently report anxieties surrounding adulterated food. In these scandals, we see how traders are injecting watermelon with syringes of sugar syrup, mangoes are artificially ripened using banned chemicals such as calcium carbide, green peas are dipped in coloring agents like malachite green, chickens are pumped with antibiotics to make them grow twice as fast, there is detergent in milk, and counterfeit goods such as plastic rice and plastic eggs are lurking in the market. The food of the marketplace, in these news pieces, is described as deceptively shiny and inviting, but also dangerous. In such a reportage on the issue of adulteration, the food supply is problematized as potentially poisonous rather than being nourishing. To decipher the dividing line between poison and nourishment, the news media position the need for hypervigilance.

Such scandals can be classified as food scares, albeit of a different character than the ones that happen in industrialized foodways in North America or Europe. Industrialized foodways have seen the eruption of massive transnational events such as the mad cow disease. More recently, an infant milk formula scare erupted in China involving Shijiazhuang-based Sanlu Corporation which escalated into an estimated 54,000 babies being hospitalized with kidney stones. Food scares in India are, however, reported in a way that captures their ordinary rather than spectacular nature of adulternation. They are highlighted as problems that everyone is already aware of. Rather than events, food scares are embedded in the corruption of the everyday in which greed and profiteering have overtaken honest provisioning. The figure of the ‘ordinary man,’ ‘common man,’ innocent consumer, or – in Hindi – aam aadmi are invoked as the victims of the faulty Indian foodways. In this criminal plot of everyday life, traders are labelled as ‘unscrupulous,’ ‘greedy,’ and, vernacularly, munafakhors (literally, ‘profit-makers’). In food scares around adulteration, the tussle of perpetrator and victim is presented as a struggle between the common man and the small trader.

The news media takes up the problem of adulteration in varied forms. There is ‘advice literature’ recommending do-it-yourself at-home techniques to discover which food is adulterated. These are called kitchen experiments in which the readers are taught how to distinguish for instance, between papaya seeds and pepper. Secondly, reportage on adulteration that appears as part of the city-news tells readers which storage house, retail shop or restaurant has been raided and found guilty. Thirdly, environment and science sections of print media discuss adulteration through popularizing scientific reports by premier research institutions such as Consumer VOICE, ToxicsLink or Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

In this article, I look at a specific way in which adulteration is represented in Indian television news media: through enactments of sting operations. A significant shift in the production of news is the framing of news through campaigns and activism. Sting operations signal the emergence of various forms of vigilantism in the news. Reporting on adulteration, television news reports not only represent a problem, but also locate themselves as a crucial intermediary between consumers and the market. The self-proclaimed role of the news media in the politics of food safety can be summarized by this provocative statement made by a particular news channel:[2]milaawat aur aapke beech khada hua hai ABP news” (between adulteration and you, stands ABP news). In these mediated campaigns for an adulteration-free marketplace, news media most often, align themselves with a consuming public while they debate the ethics of traders.

In these sting operations, blame and victimhood get clearly demarcated as crime scenes are uncovered through techniques of entrapment. The journalists usually disguise themselves to enact a crime such as bribery (often including other supporting actors to help them out), and thus, one deception uncovers another. Through breaking down the meaning of adulteration, we can see how it comfortably aligns with the media form of the sting which has a focus on ‘uncovering’ a criminal plot. Adulteration is an act through which a good is altered in terms of its constituent elements or quality such that the product is not what the consumer is expecting. The difference between the producer’s commodity and the consumer’s expectations is the essence of adulteration. Alsberg (1931) illustrates the meaning of adulteration through an example of skimmed – as opposed to adulterated – milk. Milk is, often, considered adulterated if it has been ‘watered down, that is, its quantity has been increased through dilution by water. However, the same material composition of milk and water could be sold by marketing it as ‘skimmed milk’. Therefore, adulteration is about the politics of truth and falsehood wherein, a pact of trust and reliability is broken between producer and consumer.[3] Described as acts of misrepresentation, it is the divergence between expectations of the consumer and the reality of the product that is only known to the producer. In academic literature that attempts to define adulteration, various typologies are created such as intentional adulteration for economic motive or unintentional adulteration due to lack of awareness.[4] However, in the news debate on adulteration, the Hindi word ‘milawat’ always has pejorative connotations of malicious intentions for illegal profiteering.

Adulteration, then, involves a moral panic in which the ‘innocence’ of consumerism is secretly defiled by the greed of traders. In news media, the deceptive relations of adulteration are, often, translated into metaphors of a playground. The Hindi expression that is most often used to describe the relationship between consumer and marketplace is ‘khilward’ which translates to ‘malicious play’. Phrases such as “Dilli ke janta ke sehat ke saath ho raha hai khilward” (the health of Delhi’s public is being played with) are used in the news media in order to create a tension between the victimhood of the ordinary man and the shrewdness of the trader.

Therefore, adulteration is a problem which is significantly different from other problems related to the food system. This includes the anxieties around overconsumption and the emergence of lifestyle diseases. The ‘sugar, salt, and oil’ complex has come under attack for causing various problems of urban, modern life.[5] However, in the public debate around diseases such as obesity and diabetes, choice is ascribed to the individual who is perceived as willingly bringing on him/herself these modern ailments. The problem of adulteration is also different from concerns over the hygiene of street-food where the lack of awareness and safety standards of street-vendors comes under the scanner.

Adulteration is framed as a problem of deception. Phrases such as ‘slow and invisible poisoning’ are used in the news reports to show how the effects of adulterated food has silent repercussions on our bodies. Chronic diseases, death, and urban food provisioning are linked, and phrases such as, “tarbooz mein mautt ka injection” (watermelon injected with death),[6]cancer wala dudh” (cancerous milk)[7] or “cancer wali special thali” (a special plate of cancerous food)[8] are used by the media to sensationalise the problem. Arguments are put forth in newspapers against adulteration, with ‘experts’ suggesting that the rates of cancer are ever-rising and people who have lived a healthy lifestyle (without ‘smoking or drinking’) are falling sick because of the way food is produced and traded.[9] They seem to suggest that people are falling prey to chronic diseases ‘ghar baithe baithe’ (that is, ‘even after staying indoors’ and not doing anything out of the ordinary[10]). Further, the mystery of why people are falling sick is solved by finding faults with the deceptiveness of the foodway. Hidden-ness of the body’s illness is homologous to the secrecy and hidden-ness of the market. As opposed to the framing of problems such as overconsumption and food poisoning due to unhygienic street food, adulteration involves a victim who had no agency in the consumption of deceptive food.

The sting operations are called “Operation Green Poison,”[11] “Operation Doodh (Milk),”[12] “Operation Mithai (Sweetmeats),”[13] or “Operation Chicken,”[14] mimicking the famous sting operations in the past such as the “Operation West End”[15] by Tehelka, for instance. Sting journalism, which has a long history of being used by journalists to uncover huge government scams, media scandals and celebrity bribing, is now used on everyday scandals around the food system and the deceptions that reach the plate of the aam aadmi consumer. Journalists are involved in narrating the food system. The trails that they follow make particular sites of production, distribution and consumption visible. In sting journalism around adulteration, we see the journalistic trails shine light on street hawkers, mandi merchants, open sacks and kirana stores thereby, leaving out commodity chains from supermarkets. Scandals such as the famous ‘Maggi Ban’ of 2015, in which excess lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG) was found in Maggi noodles, were covered in the form of debates and interviews, but not through investigative journalism. The news media, thereby, operate through this asymmetry, urging consumers to buy their everyday groceries only from stores with plastic packaging, labels, or reliable brands. Dichotomies between visibility and invisibility, open and packaged, and perhaps more provocatively, street and supermarket frame the way in which news around adulteration is reported. A critical understanding of where the blame and the responsibility is shifted is key to understanding the way in which the problem is being framed.

I shall now briefly discuss a project taken up by the Hindi television channel ABP News, titled, “Operation Khoya.”[16] The idea that sweetshops adulterate mithai (sweetmeats) around Diwali and other festivals has been a part of the common consciousness for years. However, television news reports are now conducting sting operations on sweet shops, khoya mandis,[17] and storage houses during the festive season. For “Operation Khoya,” journalist Vinita Goyal travels to Mori Gate in Delhi which is described as Asia’s largest khoya mandi. In the backdrop of music that is reserved for crime specials, the journalist interviews the pradhaan or leader of the mandi (market) who says that absolute purity of khoya is maintained in the transactions at the market.

The voice-over informs us that since the truth could not be unearthed by the journalistic camera, the team would need a khufiya or ‘hidden’ camera. The on-screen visual shifts from the interview with the pradhan to footage from the hidden camera. After this, we are told that a few minutes before the aforementioned interview, Vinita Goyal had entered the mandi with a hidden camera, acting like a consumer.

She had spoken to a worker at the mandi, incognito. The worker had no idea that his words were being recorded via a hidden camera. We are told that the worker’s honest narrative would reveal to us the dhoka of the pradhaan, the deception, and would eventually help us recognize the ‘safed jhoot’ (the white lies) of the pradhaan. This metaphor of ‘white lies’ and ‘semi truth’ can also be seen as a play on the white-ness of the milk being a deception. The worker reveals that there are two kinds of khoya in the market: those made with liquid milk which is sold for a higher price and those made with adulterated milk powder sold at a lower price. The latter kind is called ‘fake khoya’ in the sting operation. When the journalist re-enters the mandi with the television crew and camera (instead of the hidden camera), she is seen chasing the worker who no longer wants to talk to a journalist. Throughout the news broadcast of “Operation Khoya” the viewer is positioned as a consumer, and the journalists argue that the ‘white poison’ from the aforementioned market is reaching the homes of the consumers, if not directly then indirectly via the boxes of sweets customarily exchanged by people during the festival of lights, Diwali.

The focus of this kind of investigative journalism is almost always the small trader, or retailer, rather than a big corporation or supermarket. These sting operations and the culture of vigilantism produce an uneven geography of retail. Rather than naming shops, owners or traders where adulteration takes place, sites such as mandis, bazaars, and street hawkers are generically identified as perpetrators. The informal and bazaar economies are shown as potentially dangerous sources of adulterated food while consumers are urged to buy food from branded shops that assure them safety through aseptic packaging. The crucial identification of a victim – that is the aam aadmi, who is also becoming increasingly vocal about his/ her rights as a consumer – comes together with a new media ecology of sensational sting operations. A new mediated field of perception emerges in which scandals over adulteration find a voice through the media form of the sting operation. 

[1] Adak, Baishali. “In India, we cannot imagine food without adulteration, quips food minister, Ram Vilas Pawan.” India Today, 2 Sept 2016. <https://www.indiatoday.in/mail-today/story/ram-vilas-paswan-consumer-protection-bill-food-adulteration-338669-2016-09-02> (Last accessed 1 Feb. 2019)

[2] ABP News. “This is how you can test Diwali sweets at your home.” October 26, 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8i5dcMxrFs> (Last accessed 10 Jan 2019)

[3] Alsberg, Carl L. “Economic aspects of adulteration and imitation.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 46.1 (1931): 1-33.

[4] For instance, this typology is described in the work of Rahman et al (2015). They write, “unintentional adulteration includes naturally occurring substandard foods, due to lack of rainfall, drought, poor storage condition, etc. On the other hand, intentional adulteration is done with the intent to defraud or cheat the consumers.” See, Rahman, Md Arifur, Md Zakir Sultan, Mohammad Sharifur Rahman, and Mohammad A. Rashid. “Food Adulteration: a serious public health concern in Bangladesh.” Bangladesh Pharmaceutical Journal 18, no. 1 (2015): 1-7.

[5] Solomon (2016) documents the significant rise of concern over lifestyle diseases in metropolitan cities in India. This can be traced to both a rise of a prosperous middle class with a new food culture as well as a global health paradigm of concern over modernity’s illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and coronary diseases. Anxieties over an increasing “Westernized diet”, fast food, overconsumption and what Ecks (2003) has called a ‘greedy tongue’ are part of this definition around lifestyle ailments. See, Solomon, Harris. 2016. Metabolic living: food, fat, and the absorption of illness in India. Duke University Press; Also see, Ecks, Stefan. 2003. “Digesting modernity: Body, illness and medicine in Kolkata.” (PhD diss., London School of Economics and Political Science). <http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/2889/1/U615839.pdf> (Last accessed 1 Jul. 2018).

[6] Zee News. “Chemicals in fruits, vegetables – what they do to your body.” May 19 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43lE6e3rqeA&t=25s> (Last accessed 21 Jan. 2019)

[7] News24 Online. “Video: Beware! The milk that you are drinking will give you cancer.” Published without a date. <https://news24online.com/news/video-beware-milk-you-are-drinking-will-give-you-cancer-9ca872da> (Last accessed 1 Feb. 2019)

[8] Zee News. “Cancer yatra: vegetables grown in dirty water causing various health diseases: Part 1.” September 7 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3TEMRQc3hE&t=66s> (Last accessed 10 Jan. 2019)

[9] Rao, Vishal. “I don’t smoke or drink, I eat well and exercise. How did I still get cancer? An oncologist answers.” The Better Indian. 4 February 2017. <https://www.thebetterindia.com/85386/cancer/> (Last accessed 10 Apr. 2019)

[10] For example, ABP news. “Delhi people are consuming poisonous vegetables.” May 29, 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-TvgP618_c&t=1s> (Last accessed 21 Jan. 2019)

[11] Zee News. “Operation green poison: toxic vegetables grown along railway tracks served to you!” July 8, 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHOqhF81xTo&t=77s> (Last accessed 21 Jan. 2019)

[12] ABP News. “Operation Doodh: Watch how unhealthy is the milk we have everyday.” September 6, 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHOqhF81xTo&t=77s> (Last accessed 21 Jan. 2019)

[13] ABP News. “Operation Mithai: ‘Vark’ used in decoration of sweets is made with the help of sheep’s skin.” September 15, 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VT4Y-9NFV1Y> (Last accessed on 1 Jan. 2019)

[14] ABP News. “Sansani: Beware of the Bad Quality Chicken Being used to Prepare Street Food Products.” August 8, 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4z7nFG_YZo> (Last accessed 10 Jan. 2019).

[15] Tehelka TV. 2012. Operation West End: the Bangaru Laxman tape. http:// www.youtube.com/watch?vplsuUIRiVlsU&featurepyoutube_gdata_player. (Last accessed 10 January 2019).

[16] ABP News. “Sting Operation: Adulterated khoya is made without using milk.” October 18, 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1YmqByjVb0&t=896s> (Last accessed 10 Jan. 2019).

[17] Khoya is a raw material that is used to make various khoya-based sweetmeats such as barfi or gulab jamun. It is dehydrated milk which is thickened by heating. The Khoya Mandi at Mori Gate, Old Delhi serves many sweetshops of the city with traders coming in from various surrounding districts such as Meerut, Uttar Pradesh and Alwar, Rajasthan.

Bio:
Diksha Narang completed her Masters in Philosophy (MPhil) in Sociology from the South Asian University where she is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate. Her research interests revolve around processes of market creation, development interventions and human-animal relations. For her PhD, she is proposing a study of the interface between changing dairy markets and practices of animal husbandry in rural Rajasthan. She can be reached at diksha.narang12@gmail.com

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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