Police in Kerala have arrested a woman for allegedly killing her husband, parents-in-law and three other members of the extended family over a period of 14 years using cyanide. The chemical was allegedly supplied to the woman by a jewellery salesman who procured it from a goldsmith. Both have been arraigned as accused in the case.
Cyanide is used in the extraction and polishing of gold, and for gold-plating. The ornament industry uses the chemical to give gold its reddish yellow colour, believed to be the “original” colour of the metal, and for ridding it of impurities.
Kerala is among the country’s biggest consumers of gold jewellery. How is cyanide stocked in the state, and how is its distribution regulated?
The law and monitoring
The stocking and sale of cyanide is regulated by The Kerala Poisons Rules, 1996, which were notified under The Poisons Act, 1919, which empowers state governments “to regulate possession for sale and sale of any poison”.
The Drugs Control Department under the Government of Kerala’s Health Department issues permits for stocking cyanide for professional use, and licences to stock and sell the chemical. Any individual or institution can apply for both under relevant sections of The Kerala Poisons Rules, 1996. The applicant must have a valid and legal reason to seek the permit or licence, as well as a technically qualified person to oversee the storage and handling of the lethal toxin.
Number of permits, licences
The Drugs Control Department says only 35 agencies — research institutions, universities, academic bodies, or labs in the government or private sector — have permits to stock cyanide.
An agency can at a time stock only 250 grams; the average annual cyanide intake of an institute in Kerala is 250 g to 500 g. Cyanide crystals come in packets of 250 g. The chemical has an expiry date of three years from manufacture. Permits have to be renewed every year.
There are no valid cyanide licences — meant for sale of the chemical — in Kerala at present.
Legal source of the chemical
Cyanide is legally sourced from a Mumbai-based agency, which sells the chemical under strict restrictions to institutions or individuals who are able to furnish the relevant certificate issued by the Drugs Control Department. The permit-holder has to appear in person before the agency to procure the allotted quantity of chemical.
Smuggling and illegal imports
The industrial use of cyanide is allegedly dependent on smuggling or illegal imports. The small quantities involved make it difficult to detect and seize illegal consignments, officials said. A police officer of the rank of Sub-Inspector can suo motu register a case of illegal trade in cyanide.
The last seizure of cyanide that officials could recall took place in 2002, when sales tax officials at an inter-state border checkpost in Palakkad seized 250 kg of the chemical from a truck. The consignment, imported from Australia, was meant for an individual in Kozhikode. Investigations revealed the chemical was meant for the gold industry. The accused individual was convicted and fined a paltry Rs 250 as per the law.
What Kerala proposes to do
State Drugs Controller Ravi S Menon said it is proposed to amend The Kerala Poisons Rules in the wake of recurring incidents of acid attacks, as the use and stocking of acid also come under the purview of the Rules.
“We are planning to bring the use and stock of cyanide under the ambit of the proposed amendment in ways such that the accessibility of the public to cyanide is reduced. We also plan to incorporate sections to reduce the toxicity of the cyanide that is made available,” Menon said.