BETTER OPTION: The bulk of the fish harvested by the Goan fishing community is exported. Goa would not need any imports, with or without formalin, if exports were totally banned
BY RAJAN NARAYAN
Vishwajit, acting as eccentric as Tughluk, has taken a U-turn again, inspired by his guru Manohar Parrikar. Now he is claiming that there will be no ban on imports even for a day let along six months. The catch is that only traders complying with the rules will be allowed to import fish. Since most traders including the president of the fish importers association has reportedly not secured any license there will be continue to be a shortage of xitt kodi. The only people who will benefit because of the new order are 5-star hotels who import their fish directly. They of course will not have any problems about contamination as they have their own hygiene officers and have their fish tested in the best private labs
When the umpire is sick there is bound to be total confusion. In Goa the confusion stems from the conflicting interests of the members of the Cabinet. On Saturday, Minister for Health Viswajit Rane imperiously declared that there would be a total ban on the import of fish for six months. When it was pointed out to him that this would deprive Goans of their favourite xitt kodi, the arrogant Rane insisted that his primary concern was the health of the population. He even proclaimed that the ban on the import of the fish could be extended to six months.
What he did not mention in all his tall talk of being concerned about the health of the people was that a ban on the export of fish would be sufficient to mitigate any shortage of fish, because fish exports fetch Goa and the minister over `500 crore a year!
Minister for Tourism Babu Azgaokar must have gone complaining to the BJP’s sick head master over Vishwajit’s arbitrary and brainless decision which led to an U-turn worthy of Tughluk.
Those who know Indian history will recall that the mad Sultan suddenly decided to shift his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad. Later he changed his mind midway and ordered not just the soldiers and the court, but even the people who were shifted to return to Delhi.
With Babu Azgaokar protesting that the total ban on the import of fish would severely affect the Tourism Ministry, Health Minister Rane following the example of the U-turn Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, swiftly modified his order on Monday, announcing that there would be no ban on the import of fish — not for a year or for six months or even for a day.
He said the ban will only apply to traders who had not secured the necessary licenses from the Food and Drug Administration. Any importer who did not comply with the directive issue by the FDA would be liable to have his consignment confiscated. Going further Rane has assured the Tourism Minister that the star hotels restaurants and other establishments who directly import fish for their consumption will be exempted from the ban if they comply with the requirements.
Though Health Minister Rane has relaxed or cancelled the ban on the import on fish (for now) its hard to believe his concern is for the health of the niz goenkars who cannot live without xitt kodi. It may be recalled that ailing Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar used to fly down every weekend when he was Defence Minister for his favourite xitt kodi.
Perhaps Vishwajit Rane had insisted on the ban on import of fish because Ibrahim Shaikh is a close friend of Vijai Sardesai whom he sees as a bitter rival. Vishwajit believes that it was Vijai Sardesai who sabotaged his chances of becoming chief minister.
It may be recalled that when Parrikar was critical, Amit Shah was seriously considering a change in the leadership of the BJP Legislative Party. Among the successors considered byAmit Shah were North Goa MP Shripad Naik, the BJP state president Vinay Tendulkar and Vishwajit Rane who had resigned his Congress seat and got himself re-elected as a BJP MLA (for which he was promptly rewarded with the Health Minister portfolio). Vishwajit is also reported to be responsible for persuading Shubhash Shirodkar and Dayanand Sopte to quit the Congress and join the BJP.
It was Vijai Sardesai who said no to Vishwajit Rane being made the chief minister pointing out that the Goa Forward had extended support not to the BJP but to Manohar Parrikar, so there was no question of extending support to any other BJP MLA chosen by the High Command to succeed Parrikar.
VISHWAJIT VS VIJAI
Vishwajit Rane has been engaged in a war with Vijai Sardesai on the ban on fish imports. It may be recall that it all started with an officer of the food and drug administration Ida Fernandes discovering traces of formalin in fish imported into Goa.
The FDA decided to carry out checks on imported fish following reports of large scale contamination in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The designated FDA officer found that the formalin levels were much too high in the fish samples that she randomly picked up in the midnight raid.
The initial response of the FDA director was that the imported fish was contaminated. Subsequently allegedly on the intervention of Vijai Sardesai the report was modified to claim that the formalin in the fish was within permissible limits.
This was rubbished by scientists and experts, including many from NIO, who pointed out that there was no permissible limit as far as the presence of formalin in fish. Scientists pointed out that both the US Food and Drug Adminitration and the British health authorities had made it clear that formalin is not normally present in fish and could cause cancer even if it is consumed in small quantities over a period of time.
But for the checks by the FDA officer, Goans would not have known that they have been eating contaminated fish since Liberation or even before Liberation.
Attempts have been made by the Vijai Sardesai-lobby to discredit the officer who found the contamination by claiming that they did not follow the procedures set by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute based in Cochin.
In a knee jerk reaction, kits were secured from a particular Bombay based pharmaceutical company which had been authorised to produce testing kits. For some reason these kits which cost about `200 were available only at one retail outlet at Ponda. It was thanks to Sanjeev Raiturkar and supported by Dr Colaco that the fish formalin scam was exposed and the Health Minister Vishwajt Rane under whom the FDA comes was compelled to take action.
But the issue is not the import of fish as Vishwajt Rane keeps insisting. Neither is the issue whether the fish come in refrigerated insulated vans or not. The issue is whether Goans (and tourists) can get access to fresh fish that have not been preserved using formalin or any other chemicals.
It is foolish to assume that just because a refrigerated truck brings fish to Goa it is not contaminated. The ground reality is that fish are imported not only from Kerala and Karnataka but even from Chennai and Orissa. Presuming that the trawlers were out at sea for a week or more it would have taken at least another two to three days for the fish to arrive in Goa. Hence the likelihood is that the fish is preserved using dangerous preservatives. Logically what the health minister should have done is put testing mechanisms not only at entry points, but also at every fish market in Goa. Unfortunately the health minister will not do this because there is no money in getting strips and distributing them to the niz goenkar so that he can satisfy himself on the quality of fish.
Vishwajit’s mantra for making money — whether it is equipment for the GMC or for testing fish — is outsourcing.
In his latest statement Health Minister Rane has limited the ban on import of fish only to those who do not follow the directives of the FDA. Rane claims that he is going to set up testing facilities of an international standard to ensure food safety in Goa. Rane of course is not concerned over the fact that until his infrastructure for testing is in place, Goans will have to pay a very heavy price.
As it is, thanks to the ban which is already in place, there is a severe shortage of fish in the markets. The result is that the price of even mackerel, one of the cheapest fish, has shot up steeply.
It is not only the niz goenkar who are worried about the ban on imports. Tourists comes to Goa not only for sun, sea and sand but also for sea food. Shack owners are complaining bitterly that they cannot get fish at reasonable prices. The ban is still in effect for them because a majority of fish importers and traders have not secured a license from the Food and Drugs Authority.
There is something very fishy over the whole fish business, with or without formalin. When the season started there were no complaints about shortage of fish.
This is because niz goenkars used to go directly to the beach or landing points like the Betim Jetty and buy fish that was freshly caught. There was no fear of contamination. The catch was so large that prices even came down. Everybody seemed to be happy as they could get fresh fish directly from the fishing community.
The only people who were unhappy were people like Ibrahim Shaikh and all the Dalals who buy fish wholesale from fisherman and sell it at four times the price in the wholesale market.
Considering that there was no shortage of fish till recently why has fish suddenly disappeared? This is not because of imports. This is because trawler owners, who account for more than 70% of the fish caught in Goan waters, do not even offer their fish to the niz goenkar.
Indeed, fish are very often sold mid sea directly to an exporter which is very profitable as there are no duties or taxes. Shortage has developed because exports have resumed full swing.
All you need to do is to look at the statistical handbook brought out by the Fisheries Department. The handbook shows you the total fish harvested and how much of it was available to the local market and how much of it was exported.
This is not a new phenomenon. It has been happening for decades. Goa is compelled to import fish to meet its requirement because the best fish that Goan fishermen harvest are exported.
A report in one of the dailies reveals that in 2017, earnings on export of Goan fish had crossed the `500 crore mark. So if we are suffering and there is no fresh fish available any longer it’s because it has been exported.
This is unfortunately true of almost every food item in Goa or in the rest of the country. The world over people preferred the Goan cashew nut because it is supposed to have a special flavour. But most of the cashew nuts that tourists pick up in Goa imagining they are genuine cashew nuts are really imported from Africa or at least the kernels are, before processing is done in Goa. Most of the best quality cashew nuts are exported because they fetch a very high price.
Why Ibrahim Shaikh is not very unhappy is because besides being an importer he is also an exporter.
This explains why Vishwajit Rane is adamant on banning imports even if it means that Goans may not have their beloved xitt kodi. Rane does not get to make any money on imports. The only ones who can make money on imports are transport inspectors who have to stop trucks at the borders. In any case the FDA has neither the equipment nor the man power to conduct tests on every fish that enters Goa.
But there is a lot of money that Vishwajit Rane can make on exports. People speculate that exports will not be banned due to kick backs which must be substantial considering the value of the exports is over `500 crore. Rane may ban import of fish not just for six months or one year or even permanently, but we dare him to ban export of fish.
Our government needs to ban exports or incentivise exporters to ensure that fresh fish is sold locally at affordable rates. If exported fish is diverted to the Goan market we will have enough and more nuste for all goenkars and domestic and foreign tourists who love Goan sea food.
All that the ban on fish import will do is increase the smuggling of fish as happened when police found boxes of fish in the dickie or luggage compartment of the Goa-Bombay buses.