Calcium carbide flourishes due to lack of ripening chambers

India suffers from 91 percent deficit of ripening chambers. It pushes the suppliers to use hazardous Calcium Carbide for ripening fruits which puts consumers’ health on risk. In a judgement, Andhra Pradesh HC has termed using of Calcium Carbide as terrorism. MOHD MUSTAQUIM reports
Calcium carbide flourishes due to lack of ripening chambers

Ramesh, 26, a city dweller in Kalkaji area in New Delhi rushes to the street-vendor to buy bananas. He found very good quality bananas, but a health conscious, Ramesh asks the vendor, have they been ripened through Calcium Carbide? The answer given by the vendor leaves him shocked. The bananas were ripened through Calcium Carbide! 

Many fruits such as mangoes, apples, bananas and tomatoes are picked since before ripening when the fruits are green. It helps smooth transportation. In the lack of natural ripening chambers, the practice of artificial ripening through Calcium Carbide in many fruits, especially mangoes, papayas, sapota (chiku) and bananas are rampant in India. The suppliers use Calcium Carbide with fruits. When it comes in the contact of moisture, it produces acetylene gas, similar to ethylene, a natural ripening agent. Acetylene accelerates the ripening process and makes the fruits serveable in the market.    

The use of calcium carbide has several negative effects. Although the cosmetic appearance of the fruits improve, they become overly soft, inferior in taste, have a shortened shelf life and most importantly have toxic effects on human health, such as arsenic poisoning which results in build-up of fluids in the lungs, permanent eye damage, shortness of breath, sore throat, skin ulcers and burning sensation in the chest and abdomen; erosion of stomach tissues, diarrhoea with blood and vomiting; neurological damage through prolonged hypoxia which results in memory loss, dizziness, swelling in the brain and seizure. 

Calcium Carbide has been banned under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955 and the Food Safety and Standards Prohibition and Restriction on Sales Regulations, 2011. A person who found guilty of selling fruits ripened by Calcium Carbide can be fined Rs 500,000 or can be jailed for six months or can be punished with both under Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2011. In August 2015, Andhra Pradesh High Court, in a judgement, had said, “Those who ripen fruits with Calcium Carbide are worse than terrorists. They are killing generations with slow poison.”    

Despite ripening of fruits with such chemicals are banned and non-bailable punishable offence, but as is usually the case in India there is no enforcement of the law and the practice is widespread.

The lack of ripening chambers is the biggest reason behind such malpractices. According to a study, conducted by National Centre Centre for Cold-chain Development (NCCD), the Indian horticulture sector needs 9,131 ripening chambers. However, the sector is facing 91 percent deficit in this infrastructure with having only 812 ripening chambers for natural ripening of fruits. The study recommends major focus to be given on establishing the ripening chambers. 

Sustainable Alternative

Ethylene gas can be used to artificially ripen mangoes and bananas without any of the harmful effects. It is also permitted by the government. However, this requires enhanced infrastructure in the form of ripening chambers and the requisite skills for operating them. Each ripening chamber requires 8-10 workers for their operation and the existing infrastructure is unable to operate at optimum efficiency owing to lack of skilled manpower.

Ripening chambers are the major component of the cold chain sector. They work as the entrance to the retail market when the fruits leave the cold storages. The fruits are ripened with harmless ethylene gas in the ripening chambers. The necessity is that to establish the ripening chambers near the mandis (wholesale market). It would ease the chain of fruits from cold storages to mandis to retailers with no harm on human health.  

“Ripening Chambers are the front end facility in the cold-chain, designed to function for controlled and hygienic ripening of certain fresh produce. Modern ripening units contain multiple ripening chambers and these are used extensively for ripening bananas and fruits such as mangoes, avocados, kiwis, tomatoes, pears among various others,” Pawanexh Kohli, CEO, NCCD says.  

“It is a unique component of the cold-chain and used only in the fresh produce segment. In this segment, whereas the cold-chain operates to extend life by slowing the normal metabolism, the ripening chambers do the opposite and advances the physiological activity,” Kohli adds. Depending on market demand, ripening chambers are used to manipulate the life extension due to the cold-chain, by adjusting or tweaking the maturity cycle of the produce.

The produce that enters a ripening facility exits the cold store well within its extended life cycle, and the ripening process is triggered. Climacteric fruits like bananas, mangoes and papayas are normally ripened on demand, to meet market requirements. Normally, the produce would otherwise ripen naturally towards the end of their life span. Ripening chambers can also be brought into use for some non-climacteric fruits like for de-greening of citrus fruit.

Ripening facilities are designed to maintain mild-chill (16 to 25°C) temperatures and dose the fruit with ethylene which is a natural ripening trigger. Air circulation ensures that the dosing is spread evenly inside the chamber. A ripening cycle of 4 to 5 days is typical. At the end of each cycle, the ripened produce moves out for retail. “The shelf life of ripened produce is minimal and thus, ripening chambers need to be built at the last mile of the cold-supply-chain, close to the consumption base. Ripened produce cannot last long and should not be dispatched for long distant travel,” Kohli further said.

A ripening centre includes multiple chambers comprising on insulated chambers designed for short term storage under mild chill temperatures, independent refrigeration equipment, ethylene or other FSSAI approved ripening dosing system, air flow designed to allow for even spread of dosing gas, material handling equipment among various others such as electrical control panels.

Due to the imbalanced emphasis on cold storage over the decades, the cold chain sector is facing tremendous discrepancies in the infrastructure. With a capacity of 31.8 million metric tonne cold storages, there is only 10 percent deficit as the demand stands at 32.76 million metric tonnes. On the other hand, there is a big gap between demand and existing facilities of ripening chambers.

“There has been major focus on establishing cold storages over the decades while reefer vehicles, pack-houses and ripening chambers have been ignored. Though cold storage is the core of cold chain but lack of other infrastructures, is weakening the entire value chain,” the NCCD official says.

On sensitising the need of bringing balance in the cold chain sector, Dr. Shailendra Kumar Yadav, Director – School of Agriculture, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), says, “IGNOU can help by running awareness programmes for cold chain sector. We focus on creating better market linkage rather than setting up cold storages only.”

PMGSY has considerably improved the connectivity in rural areas with all weather roads. The improving rural connectivity can be a driving force in connecting agricultural produce with the markets. The end-to-end transportation can carry farm produce closer to last mile value realisation. It will be a vital factor for more inclusive wealth creation in rural India. Thus, the role of ripening chambers near the mandis will provide healthy and hygienic fruits to the consumers. It would boost the confidence among the consumers to spend on fruits.    â€¨

To avoid consuming hazardous fruits, ripened through Calcium Carbide, the consumers need to be sensitised that how to differentiate the carbide and non-carbide fruits. In this journey, the role of local administration becomes vital.  

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