Injurious to bridge

It is time to spit it out. While the oft-quoted ability of Coca-Cola to dissolve nine-inch nails may be an urban legend, the ability of gutka and other forms of edible tobacco to rot steel is now established beyond doubt. For the second time in a year, the Kolkata Port Trust has warned that an acid rain of gutka spittle is eating away at the vitals of the Howrah Bridge, the unofficial symbol of the city, and threatens its life expectancy.

About five lakh pedestrians use the bridge every day, walking from the rail terminal to markets and offices in town. Even if one in five were tobacco users, their expectorations could be as devastating as an acid attack. The Port Trust is initiating countermeasures against the unrelenting rain of spittle by covering vulnerable steel with fibreglass, which is inert to the corrosive chemicals in gutka and paan products. The iconic bridge will survive, but what about the gutka-users themselves? Their guts are being eaten away by the same chemicals. And they can't have fibreglass implanted, can they?

Since last summer, 19 states and the Union Territory of Chandigarh have banned gutka. Had West Bengal been among them, its famous bridge could have found relief. Or maybe not. Gutka is less visible but readily available in states where it is banned. Besides, enterprising manufacturers package tobacco and other constituents of gutka separately to circumvent food safety law banning the use of harmful substances in food. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ordered states and Union Territories to submit compliance reports on enforcement of the gutka ban. It's high time. A substance capable of bringing down one of India's biggest landmarks, made of 26,500 tonnes of steel, is a formidable public threat.

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