Fish quality is not a priority of state health department
EVEN though a year has passed since Goa received the first shock of formalin presence in fish consignments, the state health department has failed to set up a foolproof process to certify the fish coming from other states as safe for consumption. The directorate of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is primarily responsible for this certification, seems to be on a long vacation, while helpless and desperate Goans have returned to the fish markets. The best the government can claim to have done is give financial approval to two temporary laboratories to be set up by the Quality Council of India (QCI) on the borders at Patradevi and Pollem. The labs are to start operating in two weeks. We have heard nothing from the QCI yet. The health department has not made detailed information on the operation of the labs public. This once again shows that establishing a robust system for checking and certifying fish for human consumption is not one of the priorities of the health department.
All these months the health department has taken steps to check fish quality that could only be described as make-believe. The department at one time banned fish imports and then introduced haphazard inspections which failed to gain confidence among Goans. First checks were done at the borders for a few weeks, and then at Margao where the fish trucks arrived, and then we were told the samples of fish would be checked at the Margao market as well. The sum total of these random measures was insignificant. The health department has not even solved some of the basic problems. One of these is the accountability of the fish trader who gets the fish consignments to Goa. When public pressure drove the health department to ask the FDA directorate to register and licence the traders for establishing accountability, most of the traders submitted applications with ‘Margao fish market’ as their business address. With no accountability, traders go on getting fish consignments without the preservation and transportation of fish meeting standards without any fear.
The state of the art laboratory promised by Health Minister Vishwajit Rane is still in the idea stage, though its office and complex was inaugurated at Fatorda, Margao months ago. The lab, which was to be established by the Export Inspection Agency (EIA), a central government entity, was expected to be operational by March 2019. As providing safe fish to the people is not a priority with the health department, it might take an indefinite time before the lab becomes functional. The department should have driven the EIA to establish the lab with men and equipment within its schedule, for the state government had handed over the land for the laboratory on November 26, 2018. The state government should have pursued the matter with Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu who had promised all help in the matter. The lab was to have facilities for testing fruits, meat and other food products, besides fish.
The primary responsibility of checking fish for safety standards is of the FDA. Where was the need of getting a central agency to do the tests when an FDA was there, funded by the public money? The FDA has been totally irrelevant to quality of fish consumed by Goans. Until the EIA starts its lab, the health department should have made the FDA do the checking. Now the health department is going to have two temporary labs, when the approval for a full-fledged laboratory to be set up at a cost of Rs 15 crore was given by the state government in November last. The very fact that the two labs at Patradevi and Pollem are going to be temporary makes it clear that there would be not much seriousness attached to the checks there. We do not know how many officials will be there in each lab and what would be their mode of checking. Trucks with fish consignments enter Goa during night hours. Then, there are points other than Patradevi and Pollem through which vehicles can enter Goa. How much effective the two labs will be in stopping contaminated fish is doubtful.