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Goa grappling for ‘nustem’

Fish-curry-rice, fish thali, masala fried or rava fried fish – the lives of most Goans revolves around these. It defines our culture and is integral to our existence as it is our staple food. The formalin-laced fish scare resulted in banning of imported fish. And this has troubled the common people who have enjoyed their fish for decades now and those who visit Goa. NT NETWORK highlights the struggle and adjustments made by Goans

Danuska Da Gama I NT NETWORK

The fish markets wear a deserted look. There’s so much of uncertainty among people. The common man is stressed and scared. The government has banned the import of fish from outside Goa till the end of the month to ensure formalin-laced fish does not enter the state; this after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed the presence of the organic compound in fish imported from other states.

People have been left with little or no option due to the ban on the import of fish, and there is fear in the minds of people about the presence of formalin that is used to preserve bodies in mortuaries. Since the ban on mechanised fishing is in force in the state till the end of this month, there is a severe shortage of locally available fish, and if there is any fish available the supply is meagre, while the demand has surged leading to soaring prices.



Food without fish in Goa

Food, shelter and clothing are the basic needs of every human being. And when your much loved, basic staple is contaminated or unavailable, you feel miserable and cheated as this was allowed and went unnoticed for perhaps a very long time. At the local tinto, after immersing Lord Ganesh during Chaturthi, at picnics and during lunch break at work – fish ruled our lives.

There has been a betrayal of our trust, our lives have been taken for granted and we long for our beloved fish to return to our platters – just as it should be, they way our ancestors consumed it as a delicacy and because it was the healthiest option then and now, even compared to fruits and vegetables.

“For every Goan supper is incomplete without fish. As the FDA has found some carcinogenic compound in imported fish Goans have diverted their taste to fresh water fish. It’s quite evident that prices of fresh water fish have seen a rise of 200 per cent in last couple of weeks. There are many other options like dried salted fish (khare), field crabs. Dried mackerel with coconut oil, kokum curry and rice is a good substitute,” says businessman from Bicholim, Viraj Shirodkar.

“Fish has always been my favourite and our staple food since childhood. I can remember the days when my father would get a lot of fish home which was considered so healthy and tasty and we all would eat it. But now since I heard about the news of formalin I’m scared to go to the fish market and purchase it,” says Avelino Pereira from Sangolda. He keeps himself updated on the issue through newspapers and has shifted to eating more vegetables and chicken, which he is not fond of.

For assistant professor Dinesh Nirawdekar, the ban on fish import has not been a big struggle, but he is noticed how it has taken a toll on his mother as she struggles to substitute fish in their meals. Joseph Fernandes from Aldona too is struggling. “Chicken or vegetable or egg can be substitute temporarily, but these don’t satisfy a Goan for very long,” he says.

Restaurateur Leo D’Souza has stopped serving fish and has changed his menu offerings to pizzas, burgers, waffles, etc. “This matter was first reported in Orissa. As usual we woke up late. And sadly it is not just the fish; fruits and meat are also being doused with carcinogens,” he says.

Hands-on historian Sanjeev Sardesai is aghast at the use of toxic chemicals by fish suppliers, right under the noses of those in Goa administration. Since he knows they may be unable to resolve the problem, he has taken to angling (rod fishing).

Teacher from Thivim, Agnelo Dias says that it is not only difficult to cope without fish, but there is also no substitute for fish. “There are no adjustments either. A daily diet and meal without fish on the table for any Goan is an incomplete meal.”

Teacher Esha Nadkarni from Panaji was shocked with news of the formalin issue that made headlines. “By now we had accepted the fact that the vegetables and fruits that we consume have some chemicals sprayed or injected, but we thought our beloved fish is still untouched. But the recent happenings have given us sleepless nights,” she says.


Adapting and making the switch

Of course we are ‘susegad’ and not lazy. We live lives that are enjoyable and content. But when you are rattled beyond imagination, when the most coveted food item on your plate goes missing or is impure, it calls for adjustments.

And for a fish loving Goan, this adjustment has not been that easy and comfortable…

From going vegan, paying a high price for fresh water fish, to substituting it with dried fish or buying fresh frozen fish from fisheries – people are trying out everything. Maria D’Mello runs her enterprise Homestead, and fish and prawn pickles are two of the many products that have a huge demand. Talking about how she has adapted to the situation she says that though she prefers sea prawns, she is left with no other option than buying farm prawns. Before the fishing ban and otherwise she would wake up and buy prawns and fish directly from the trawlers coming in at the jetty. For now she has knocked of kingfish molho from the menu as its pricing is too steep.

“Fish is a part our staple diet and it is difficult to go without it. However, we have stopped consuming it and have shifted to more of vegetarian food and chicken,” says student Shayoni Mitra.

“I am sure that there is no (fish eating) Goan who will be able to adjust his food habits/lifestyle when there is no fish on the platter,” says Nirawdekar, while Avelino in anxiously waiting for August 1, as that is when the fishing activity will resume. “It’s very difficult to hunt for local fish and now that there is demand it has become expensive, the rates are not realistic at all.” He says.

Rohan D’Costa from Colva tells us that they have managed to replace fresh river fish in their meals at home, but says: “It is really disheartening when our own CM Manohar Parrikar being an IITian says ‘a bit of formalin is present in fish, fruits, etc.’ I don’t know what the future will be like of us Goans.”

Publisher Sapna Sardesai condemns the use of formalin in fish. “It is unpardonable,” she says. Sardesai has taken a practical approach to the issue and has gone vegan, she says her meals have become more creative. “The monsoon brings with it an abundance of greens that are easy on the palate, and are very rich in nutrients. Coupled with the occasional river fish, we are managing,” she says.

Designer Shweta Sequeira’s family is scared to consume fish from the market. This has led the men in the family to take up rod fishing. “We have to compromise so much for food now that we have settled for dals and vegetables, and I don’t even know if the vegetables or anything available is safe now. Claudia D’Souza from Nagoa says that her tiffin contains more of vegetarian food items. Besides, chicken and beef, cereals and pulses are now a staple in her home, at least till the fishing season commences.

The first obvious step that Esha and her family took was to stop eating fish. “But how long can we go without our dear fish? The next was to buy local fish brought to our doorstep by the fisherwoman we have great trust in. My mother was still a bit sceptical so we tried dipping the fish in vinegar water hoping the chemicals would let go of the fish. But apparently, that isn’t full proof either,” Nadkarni says. So they contemplated going without fish for a while but the thought of fried fish lured them and they started buying local fish again.

For Margao-based Prajwal Tari the ban on fish import hasn’t had a direct impact on his diet, as it happened at the time the fishing ban is in force, like every other year. “Because of the fish breeding season, I would normally survive on other food items such as chicken and karyacho. In the same way this year I have been eating chicken and dry fish,” he says.


Temporary solution or permanent remedy

While Goans feel cheated around the year and were quiet even though good quality fish and imported fish reach the hotels first, only 30 per cent of the 2,000 tonnes of fish sold is bought by locals. This formalin controversy has hit us hard – literally, on the pocket, on the health front and as a basic need, people are furious with the government, politicians, and those involved in the fish business as to how their lives will roll back to normalcy. This prompted the government to ban import of fish till August 3. And thus implies that import may resume, should the ban not be extended.

Shirodkar believes that a temporary ban on import will never solve this issue, the maximum it is doing is keeping Goans away from poisonous compounds. “After August 1, when the fishing activity in Goa begins, Goa will have the capacity to supply salt water fish to the whole state,” Shirodkar states.

Entrepreneur Marlon Lobo says the issue is complicated. He says that there is a need to have bodies that control the quality of fish sold at every fish market. These bodies should be outsourced to private companies thereby reducing the chances to be bought over like our government agencies. “A product like fish which is highly perishable, should not be sold on the roads or road side. Besides, the only way to preserve fish is by temperature control,” he says.

While Parrikar has directed officials to conduct regular checks, people have lost faith in the integrity of those managing such affairs. Joseph says that every Goan is waiting for the formalin issue to be resolved, but he doubtful of it being resolved permanently. “It will be strict for a few days, but will go back to formalin after some time,” he says. Mitra doesn’t know whether the ban will solve the issue or not. But, what she does say is that the entire issue has made people more aware of what goes into their food and at how much risk our lives are Student at Goa                         University Ramrai Naik believes that a blanket ban on fish import or export wouldn’t solve any problem; rather it would create a bigger crisis in the state. “What the government really needs to work on is increasing the capacity of the health agencies which in turn would have credible methods of testing the fish quality,” he says.

And while the shortage is being felt by Goans, Leo believes that the magnanimity of the ban on import will be felt in the state in true measure only when the tourist season kicks off and if the ban continues. “Lobster, snappers, pomfrets, etc, come from Vizag, Chennai, etc,” he informs. He believes banning will not help. “We do not have the quantity and the variety of seafood to cater to the tourists visiting Goa,” he points out.

Gimmicks of the

Every issue in Goa is directly or indirectly linked to politics. If it isn’t politicised by the Opposition and used to gain mileage by ruling politicians to influence their vote bank, there are politicians involved somewhere along the issue. It is still worse when such responsible citizens make statements that come across as being immature, irresponsible or defensive. People have been hurtling curses at a few politicians and blame them for letting formalin-laced fish be sold in the market – risking the lives of these very people who put their faith in them during elections.

The situation has angered people and the outcome of this anger is yet to be felt in full measure. Prajwal Tari is angered not because he can’t eat fish but because the lives of people are being played with by those in the business and politicians under whose goodwill and support they operate. “What has happened is very wrong. It clearly shows that the government doesn’t care about our well being and only thinks about their pockets. I feel the government has a strong hand in this act. I feel the government should take necessary steps to prohibit the import of such fish on a long term basis or permanently.”

Echoing a similar sentiment Sandeep Phaldessai believes that this problem can’t be ever solved since politicians are involved in this. “And we citizens don’t have the spunk to throw these corrupt politicians out in spite of knowing what they are up to; fish not being the only issue. So in a sense I believe we deserve what we have got.”

Lobo says that the temporary ban is of no issue at all. The con artists who were involved in adulterating fish will be back again because of the blessings they receive from their godfathers. “How come we have not seen even one person arrested yet? If a terrorist kills people with guns, what makes these people any different?” he questions.

“In my opinion many public-raised issues are digested in due course of time and are completely forgotten and neglected. Now that the FDA has proved their point about the use of hazardous chemicals as preservatives, they should get stricter with rules and the testing centres. Many states have banned formalin especially Sikkim and Goa should follow likewise,” says Shirodkar, adding that the FDA should also educate general public about local testing methods as in a democracy the general public cannot be neglected. And we Goans are well educated and should learn to test and check for such issues on our own.

Ramrai believes that the political commentary disguised as experts has only fuelled people’s paranoia. “This is a matter of grave concern to the state, for locals as well as tourists, and has to be resolved by establishing the proper mechanism for testing.”


Support local

While it hasn’t been easy to live without fish, the traditional fishermen are now heroes. They are now sought after, being hailed, given more importance than ever and are being acknowledged for saving the day for the fish-starved Goans. However, limited quantity of fish supply, double and tripled rates of fish defines the fish scene with limited variety of fish.

While entrepreneur Jervis Pereira thinks that bans are fine, the market will clamour for substitution or alternatives as demand is high. “Then the cycle repeats itself and only the product is different. Using Blue Economy practices should be mandated by the state. Sustainable fishing, fish farms and cutting edge technology has to be practiced in the state,” he opines.

Agnelo believes that this temporary ban should be a permanent one to enable Goans to get maximum fish from Goan fishermen. “It has been noticed that for the past few years we find the same type of fish in the markets throughout the year. The best is exported, canned or sold to restaurants and hotels. The road ahead can be made clear if Goans get a variety of fresh and clean fish every day for a staple diet.

Lobo also thinks that the only solution here is to support local fish vendors. But, Esha believes that going local is an option as one must have great trust in the fisherman/woman.

Goans have mixed feeling. They are hopeful that this hopeless situation will not just bring about seriousness about stakeholders but will ensure that life returns back to normal, with fish on their platter, and are also on guard to gain awareness of such life threatening issues.



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