Poison in prasada: punish the guilty

Thirteen people have died so far after eating prasada at the Kichugutti Maramma temple in Chamarajanagar district’s Hanur taluk. The number of deaths is likely to increase in the coming days as almost a hundred people have been admitted to nearby hospitals, including 29 in a critical condition. The Karnataka government must ensure that all those affected by the poisoned prasada are given the best of treatment. The death toll is already high and every effort must be taken to ensure that the patients recover quickly. Food poisoning is not uncommon in India, especially when food is cooked for large gatherings. Use of dirty water and poor quality ingredients is widespread. Kitchens are often filthy resulting in lizards and cockroaches falling into vessels and contaminating food. Although temples do take some care in cooking prasada for devotees, this is not always the case. Cooking in unhygienic conditions is a recipe for diarrhoea or severe vomiting.

What happened at the Kichugutti Maramma temple was far more dangerous: it was not some bacteria or virus that contaminated the tomato rice but it is suspected to be organophosphate, a common pesticide. This, however, needs to be established as the samples are still under test at the CFTRI laboratory in Mysuru. It did seem at first that the pesticide may have entered the food chain through the soil in which the tomatoes were grown. However, initial investigations reveal that the pesticide was added intentionally to the food. Apparently, there is a rift between two groups over the building of a gopura at the temple. The group that was awarded the contract to build it, decided to celebrate by distributing prasada to the devotees on the occasion of the laying of the foundation of the temple’s gopura. Miffed with not having secured the contract, the other group added pesticide to the prasada in order to sabotage the celebration and malign their rivals.

The government must ensure that the probe into the poisoning is impartial and taken to its logical conclusion; the guilty must be punished under the law. Five CCTV cameras in and around the temple as well as at the kitchen could have provided valuable evidence. However, they were not working. Were these cameras tampered with by those who poisoned the food? Importantly, measures must be put in place to ensure that food poisoning does not recur at mass events. Often, we justify food poisoning at such events by pointing to the very large number of people for whom food is prepared. But this is an untenable argument as food, whether for one person or one lakh, can be made hygienically with just a little bit of extra care and effort. Officials must monitor the quality of food at mass events on a regular basis.

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Poison in prasada: punish the guilty

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