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Goa’s Fishy Tale

Formalin Raises Acute Concerns

Frederick Noronha (fredericknoronha2@gmail.com) is a Goa-based journalist, founder of the India–EJ environmental journalists’ mailing list, and co-editor of The Green Pen.

Goa was in the midst of a “fish crisis” as the controversy over fish preserved in formalin being sold in the markets emerged. For a state heavily dependent on fish, the issue brings to the fore questions of food safety and the politics surrounding supply of fish in Goa.

Goa witnessed an unusual panic over July, and which involved its favourite food—fish—along with the credibility of some prominent politicians.

Almost without warning, the issue of formalin-laced fish erupted in the wholesale fish markets of Margao, the south Goa commercial capital, some 30 kilometres from Panaji or Panjim. Formalin is an aqueous solution of the chemical compound formaldehyde, which is otherwise used in tanning, as a disinfectant, an embalming agent and a soil sterilant. It is classified as a human carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance.

Within hours of the news coming out on 12 July 2018, it spilled over to social media, which can be both hyperactive and politically polarised in Goa, a coastal state of 1.6 million which was officially “guesstimated” to be visited by 7 million domestic tourists and 0.9 million tourists in 2017 (Department of Tourism 2017). To complicate matters, along with sharp concern over a protein that most people in Goa eat, within hours the official position was amended, and officials and politicians claimed that the formalin was within “permissible limits,” a view contested by scientists (Goa365 2018).

This issue has come up in other parts of India, including Chennai, Odisha and Assam. News channels showed fish being painted by workers wearing gloves. Fish consumers here have in recent times been surprised by the availability of fish throughout the year, some of it coming in from outside Goa, and staying “fresh” for surprisingly long. Goa otherwise has banned fishing along the state’s coast during the monsoons, which is considered to be the breeding season for fish.

Fish vendors responded by protesting the raids, even as officials initially confirmed to the media that formalin was found in the fish brought in from outside the state. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), having deci­ded to conduct a raid, its officials rea­ched the market by 4 am, and checked 17 vehicles which “had come in from different states.” These states included Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala and Odisha. “We brought chemists here and did the tests,” they were quoted as saying (PrudentMediaGoa 2018a)

The issue took a political twist when Vijai Sardesai, a young and ambitious minister in the Goa Forward Party (a crucial ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—BJP in Goa), called on the media and the FDA to not “sensationalise” the issue. By the evening of the same day, the politicians were being accused of making a “u-turn” on the issue, by playing down the risks.

Fish vendors took to the front lines, defending the quality of the fish. The wholesalers stood in the sidelines over an issue that concerns a huge population in a state where almost everyone, almost across all castes and communities, eats fish.

Fish vendors were heard giving warnings on television that “Goans will have to eat fish priced at ₹100 for a single mackerel [if the fish from outside Goa stopped coming in].” Others said they had never even heard of the name of the chemicals being mentioned. Wholesalers, obviously stung by the unexpected deve­lopments, also questioned the accuracy of the tests on the fish, and the manner in which it was conducted. In solidarity, fish vendors closed markets across other towns of Goa. In a single day’s raid, about ₹1 crore worth of fish was not allowed to be sold (PrudentMediaGoa 2018b).

When local environmentalists, led by Claude Alvares and V Gadgil (2002), published a report on the local environment, work on which started way back in the late 1980s, they titled it Fish, Curry and Rice. This popular book, which has gone through quite a few editions, has a title that reflects the importance of local resources, including fish (besides coconuts and paddy), in the daily food input and also in shaping Goa’s ecology and economy.

Fish has caused a great deal of concern across the state, as had beef recently when the BJP government played politics over Goa’s beef supply (D’Mello 2018). So all encompassing is the influence of fish on Goan life that a common greeting to stoke up conversation here is the Konkani phrase “Nisteak kitem”? (What are you having for fish today?)

Goa was once a prominent fishing centre, and still is (despite res­ources being depleted by mechanisation and exports taking away the best fish). But, this was more than an issue of just food. It reminds the elder generation of the 1970s, when local traditional fishermen waged pitched battles against the mechanisation of fishing. Mechanisation was done with foreign (including Scandinavian) aid, and saw the benefit and subsidies often going to those not at all linked with the sector, including politicians. Ironically enough, while mechanisation of fishing was then touted as a policy meant to promote local protein intake through fish, the price of fish has speedily grown since. One generation earlier, there were days in Goa when a hundred mackerels could be bought for just a single rupee. In the mid-1970s, pollution by a fertiliser plant then being set up there caused massive fish mortality along the Goa coast, an issue which was spoken about for long after that.

The concern over fish also brought to the fore food safety, an issue otherwise mostly undebated in a state which has high cancer rates, according to medical professionals in the state. Likewise, it raised issues of governance, and the pro­mises of good governance. Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar at one stage sought to dismiss the issue as “fake news.” But, formalin-laced fish has also been reported in some coastal and other Indian states, from Kerala to Odisha and Assam, while organisations like the Food and Agricultural Organization have also disseminated study papers on topics that include the “toxic and sublethal effects of formalin on freshwater fishes.”

The issue also had political ramifications.Formalin emerged against the backdrop of Parrikar’s battle with a serious ailment. Earlier this year, the 62-year-old former defence minister spent over a hundred days out of Goa, undergoing lengthy treatment in the United States (US). Parrikar’s absence, in a state where his critics have earlier too charged him with running a one-man government, had caused some turmoil. In late July, he presided over a brief and hurried Goa assembly session in his usual ultra-combative style. But, at the time of writing (this article), he was on his way to the US to continue with his treatment.

In addition, there have been other cha­llenges facing Goa’s BJP-led alliance government. For one, its popularity has been waning since the March 2017 elections, when it formed a government
despite winning only 13 seats in the 40-member house.

Caught in the “formalin battle” was Sardesai, who has had a meteoric rise to power in Goa. In 2017, his party won an unexpected three seats which played a crucial role in the BJP’s coming to power in Goa.

Goa’s response to the “fish crisis” was to ban fish coming in from other states till the end of the annual local monsoon fishing ban, which ended in early August. The debate took on a divisive tone with some vested interests turning it into a Goan versus non-Goan issue. As it happens, the fish wholesale trade has Muslim businessmen at its helm. Some of the discussions taking place in the public domain clearly had a communal twist.

At the start of August, the formalin issue reached the high court. The Goa government told the court that formalin is “inherent” in marine fish in small quantities (4 milligram per kg). The court issued notices to the state government, central government and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. Until mid-August, the debate over how effectively the state government had checked fish brought in from outside the state for formalin levels was still a topic of public debate. There has been no decisive conclusion or action as yet.

References

Alvares, Claude and V Gadgil (2002): “Fish Curry and Rice: A Source Book on Goa, Its Ecology, and Life Style,” Goa Foundation.

Department of Tourism (2017): “Tourist Arrivals (Year Wise),” Government of Goa, goatourism.gov.in/statistics/225.

D’Mello, Pamela (2018): “Goa’s Cow Politics: How Gau Rakshaks and NGOs Have Worked to Starve the State of Beef,” Scroll.in, 15 January, https://scroll.in/article/865056/goas-beef-politics-gau-rakshaks-and-ngo....

Goa365 Video (2018): “FDA Says YES, Fish with ‘Permissible Limit’ Formalin Safe to Eat; Experts Say No!,” www.goa365.tv/Issues/B/fda-says-yes-fish-with-‘permissible-limit’-formalin-safe-to-eat-experts-say-no/03946.html.

Prudent Media Goa (2018a): “Formalin Chemical Used in Fish? FDA Raid in Margao Market,” YouTube, 11 July, www.youtube.com/watch?v =rZoBnFFFDww.

— (2018b): “FDA ‘Refreshes’ Report Says Formaldehyde Is Within Permissible Limita,” YouTube, 12 July, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeHmPL_bDVU.

Updated On : 24th Aug, 2018

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