Health Minister Vishwajit Rane has relaxed safety norms to ‘help’ traditional small fishermen from Maharashtra and Karnataka send fish to Goa. He has compromised on his ‘not negotiable’ stand on safety standards for imported fish. The importer is no more required to bring fish in safe conditions but will be presumed to bring safe fish if he brings it in small vehicles! The requirement is diverted from compliance with safety standards to the size of vehicles used in transportation. Anyone would be allowed to bring fish in small vehicles from areas upto 60 kilometres away from Goa’s borders. All these months Rane had been assuring Goans he would not allow import of fish from other states until importers strictly complied with the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) regulations. How come he has changed his stance? Are the interests of non-compliant fish importers more important to Rane than the health of the Goan men, women and children?
The flip-flop on the part of Health Minister Rane since the formalin-in-fish issue surfaced has eroded people’s trust in his ministry. His relaxation without establishing a strong monitoring system is going to make people lose whatever trust they have in his ministry about guaranteeing sale of safe fish. He changed his stance on import of fish only a month after he imposed a ban. Nothing has changed since the ban was imposed. The FDA has been doing random routine checks, which are more tokenism than real action for deterrence. The fish traders have won their battle for continuing with their trade without complying with any norms. The real losers in this mock battle between the Health Minister and fish importers were innocent Goan people who wanted nothing more than fish that was not going to harm their health. The Health Minister has given no such guarantee to the Goan people. The message from the relaxation is: Goans can go and eat the fish the traders are bringing and take care of their health!
Perhaps the state government listens to only organized protesters and the invisible lobbyists and wheeler-dealers. The Health Minister had maintained he would not succumb to any pressure and not lift the ban until the traders complied with regulations. But after the fish traders organized a protest a few days ago, their leaders came out full of cheer after meeting the Health Minister. What had passed on between the minister and the traders that was so effective as to make him relax the ban? Perhaps the Goans at large also need to organize protests to demand guarantees from the government to ensure safety standards for imported fish. They have suffered long enough. There is resentment among the people, for whom fish is a staple, and they have expressed their resentment by boycotting fish brought by fish traders. They are not fools not to understand that unsafe fish can be brought in smaller vehicles too. It can be brought in trucks from faraway states like Andhra Pradesh and Odisha and reloaded in smaller vehicles in areas of Maharashtra and Karnataka falling within 60 kms of Goa and brought to Goa without any checks to be sold in Goa’s markets. There are hundreds of examples that big traders have used the cover of ‘small businessmen’ to do their business in order to evade and avoid regulations and strict monitoring. There is a sympathy attached to the word ‘small.’ Fish traders and Health Minister Vishwajit Rane have used the word (small fishermen) to ‘exempt’ them from food safety standards and let them freely become conduits for big sharks!
Until last week Rane was applying his mind to give the charge of checking the quality of fish to Iva Fernandes, who had blown the lid off formalin in fish in July, in order to restore the trust of Goans in safety of fish. Informed sources saw it as punishment to Iva Fernandes as she was being asked to do a job which was supposed to be done by juniors. That showed that the health department and FDA were engaged more in their own games rather than in the serious business of assuring healthy fish to Goans. Rane should have set up a strong checking and monitoring apparatus before relaxing the ban. He has put the cart before the horse. He had promised to set up a state of art fish testing laboratory but there are no signs of it coming up any time soon. The Health Minister should not take Goan people for granted and condemn them to eating unchecked fish. He and the government might have to pay political costs for it.