The issues relating to the ban on import of fish are getting more and more complex with new twists being added every day. Fish traders have approached the Bombay High Court at Goa challenging the order. Health Minister Vishwajit Rane has, however, refused to buckle under pressure and said that the government will defend its stand on ban in the High Court. This is an important shift in Rane’s position since some weeks ago he was speaking for fish importers declaring the fish fit for human consumption. To buttress his claim, the minister said the reports prepared in the FDA laboratory were contrary to the findings of the raiding team in July and that formalin found in the fish was within permissible limits. This claim was rebutted by experts from FSSAI, who said that there was nothing like permissible limit as far as formalin was concerned in preserving fish. In a volte face Rane has said that he wants to send a clear message that the ban on fish imports will not be revoked as he wanted to ensure protection of Goans’ with safe fish.
There are protests in the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Maharashtra. They are threatening retaliatory action. The fishing community from Karwar district on Saturday turned back nearly half a dozen trucks transporting fish from Goa to various places in Karnataka and demanded that the ban in Goa be withdrawn within eight days. The chief secretaries of Maharashtra and Karnataka have sought a clarification from the state chief secretary Dharmendra Sharma. What is surprising to note is that the state health authorities have woken from deep sleep and want to enforce the laws overnight. Why did not they enforce the FSSAI rules earlier, though they have been in existence for nearly half a decade? While the government has sought to impose ban on import of fish from other states, it has failed to set up a sound mechanism to check the quality of fish, whether formalin was used to preserve the fish. By government’s own admission it was yet to identify a suitable place to house the proposed world class laboratory and the exercise could take up to six months. There is every possibility of importers hoodwinking the authorities by bringing fish in insulated vehicles but laced with formalin as there is no mechanism yet for checking of all imported fish.
The ban does not mention whether it is total, nor how the state would ensure that Goans get enough quantity of fish. Since the ban, supply of fish has dwindled considerably to the local markets. The problems have been compounded with the state being flooded with tourists, many of whom relish Goan fish dishes. Prices of fish have skyrocketed and become beyond the reach of the common man. There is every possibility of fish disappearing from the dishes of Goans unless the government takes remedial steps. One of the steps could be to ban export of fish from the state but that may not suffice as not all varieties of fish that are exported are consumed in the state. Many in fish business feel that ban order was vague and has created more confusion than clarity in finding solution to the formalin-in-fish row. What is worse, while claiming to protect the interests of the fish consuming Goans, the government appears to have failed them by not having a standard system for checking fish quality, putting the health of Goans to risks. The government decision has deprived thousands of people of livelihood. While the importers, who have made significant earnings over the years despite flouting the norms, perhaps with the blessings of authorities, may not feel the pinch soon, the local fish vendors and labourers would surely face uncertain days.
As the matter has reached court it is unlikely that a solution to the issue would be found any time soon. The High Court is likely to go into every detail before giving its verdict on the issue. The court in its earlier hearing had directed the FSSAI to define safe parameters on presence of formalin in fish, perhaps based on the claim of the state government that the fish checked in Panaji and Margao wholesale markets contained permissible limits of formalin. It remains to be seen how the state government is going to satisfy the court on its latest decision to ban the import of fish. The government should take a rational stand and ensure that there was a good system to check the standards.