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Punishment As Reward To An Honest Officer

HAVING failed to set up a strong monitoring apparatus for checking the quality of imported fish, Health Minister Vishwajit Rane has decided to kill two birds in one stone. He has decided to give the responsibility for checking imported fish samples to Iva Fernandes, the designated officer of the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) in South Goa whose confirmation of fish samples containing formalin in July triggered popular rejection of imported fish. Why has he picked on Iva Fernandes, an officer who he, the FDA and the big fish traders had painted as the villain of the piece?  She has been internally ostracized by the FDA director. Seeing no end to her victimization, she went to the Goa Human Rights Commission to seek justice. Her appointment as officer-in-charge for checking fish at Margao is a further punishment for her, for she holds a position much higher than the persons who are supposed to do spot checking.

Ever since formalin was detected in fish samples, the health department has gone crazy and been unable to think of ways to restore the people’s faith in the FDA and to bring Goans back to the fish market. The steps taken by them so far have been impulsive, haphazard and ineffective. The government has been saying that they were taking steps to ensure that Goans got to eat fish fit for human consumption, but they have completely failed in ensuring that. Then came the ban on import of fish, with the Health Minister declaring that no imports will be allowed until the fish traders got their licences from the FDA and fulfilled all other requirements for ensuring standards of fish. Then one fine morning, the ban was violated by the fish traders who brought fish from other states, self-certifying the fish as free from formalin and other toxins. The traders had not cared for the ban; they had not cared to get the FDA approvals.

The following day, the Health Minister, instead of taking legal action against the violators of the ban, allowed them to bring in trucks without them having fulfilled the requirements for approval. He even sent an FDA team to Margao to certify the fish as safe!  And fish business has resumed and all fish is found safe! Who is going to believe the Health Minister? So, the new move is to get Iva the villain to issue the certificate. Fish traders had long been asking the Health Minister to post Iva Fernandes for spot testing. Their argument is that since her statement on formalin triggered popular rejection of imported fish, her certificate alone can reassure the Goans. Earlier the Health Minister shot down the suggestion. Now he has accepted their suggestion.

Health of people is a serious issue. The government is not treating the fish issue with the seriousness it should. Formalin is a toxic chemical used to preserve bodies and prevent its decay in mortuaries. It is known to cause cancer and as such its use even in the smallest quantity should not be permitted. As it would be next to impossible to check all the fish that enters the markets in the state, there is every possibility of unscrupulous elements in fish business using the imports to their advantage and using formalin in higher quantity to preserve fish. The unscrupulous elements would succeed with the collusion of FDA officials.

Why is the Health Minister forcing Iva Fernandes, a senior official who is a licensing authority, to do the job of a food safety officer? As the designated officer her responsibility is to receive samples drawn by food safety officers and food analysts on a day-to-day basis and take action according to test results. If she is forced to check fish she will have to be out of her office almost the whole day as consignments come at different times. It is hard to believe that the Health Minister is not aware of which officer is supposed to do what job in the FDA. The FDA director should have made him aware if he did not know. As of now, it looks like both of them have decided to put her to donkey job to downgrade and disgrace her as a punishment for the problems she has created for them. Why can’t the government deploy food safety officers, who are supposed to draw samples, to check fish samples and entrust their supervision to the designated officer Iva Fernandes? The answer to re-establishing people’s faith in the standards of imported fish is to establish a robust regulatory system and not humiliation and harassment of an honest officer.

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