Life term for milk adulteration wrong

The Supreme Court has rightly expressed serious concern over the rampant adulteration of milk in the country. It has also rightly criticised the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) for its failure to take effective measures to check adulteration. The court has issued a set of guidelines to the Central and state governments and the FSSAI which are intended to help them in dealing with the problem of milk adulteration. They include executive, regulatory and legal measures. Most of them are necessary and even essential, but the court went overboard with its prescription of life imprisonment for those who adulterate milk. It told the Central government to amend the Indian Penal Code to provide for life term in such cases. Some states like Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and
Bengal have this provision. At present, most states prescribe a punishment of six months jail term and a fine.

Consumption of adulterated milk is hazardous to health, and infants and children will be particularly affected by it. But life imprisonment is an excessively harsh punishment for the offence. The existing punishment is low, but there is no need to go to the other extreme by making the punishment too stringent. That is not a case for being lenient to adulterators. Governments may consider enhancing the punishment to four or five years, which will serve the ends of justice. It does not help to take an emotional view of crime and punishment, and courts should especially take care to have a reasonable and logical view of them. The law and punishment should be the same for all kinds of adulteration which endanger the lives and health of people. It is difficult to see the legal rationale for treating milk adulteration differently from adulteration of other food items.

The problem of milk adulteration is the most serious in states which provide for life term for it. At the national level, about 70% of the milk being sold is adulterated. In Odisha and Bengal it is 100% and in UP it is 88%. The prospect of a life term has not made any better impact in these states. It is well accepted that it is not the severity of punishment but its certainty that deters criminals. In India, offenders are in fact certain that they can get away with the offence. Adulteration of milk and other food items is hardly detected and even when cases are registered, very few are punished. What is needed is to make the machinery for testing samples and taking follow-up action efficient and free of corruption. The court’s directives in these respects are welcome.

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