VERY recently Dhaka citizens witnessed a much desired drive against formalin treated food by government with support of civil society watchdogs. This was overdue as people helplessly watched every fresh food item they touched, from fish to fruit and vegetables to milk tainted by a potent chemical that could slowly poison a person to death. The campaign received a lot of publicity over media, and we sitting abroad could also see how the law enforcers were randomly checking stalls of produce and throwing items suspected of formalin treatment into trash cans. Consumers and civil society activists lauded the raids while the vendors complained of excessive measures and questioned effectiveness of detecting devices. But the impact of the campaign, at least apparently, has been a success with reported reduction in the supply of formalin treated produce. A law controlling the import and distribution of this perilous chemical would also hopefully reduce the use of this material in tainting of food items.
The question that remains unanswered from this anti formalin campaign is why it began in the first place. Was it an absence of facilities that keep our produces and other food items fresh that led the vendors to dubious means to keep these fresh, or was it simply a desire to dupe consumers with fake products to make a profit from unsaleable merchandise? Would the tendency of the merchants to sell fake products or treat stale food using a different method stop if we had more and easily accessible chilling centers for produce and other perishable food items? Can we guarantee that our consumers will get fresh and untainted food items when the current campaign and raid is over? Unfortunately not.
The desire to profit from making fools of others, be it in business or politics, is a culture that we have been unable to get out of. Politics and business work hand in hand, one feeds the other, imitates each other. What one tries to do in business, also tries it in politics.
A prime reason why many of the businesses take resort to unfair practices is profit maximization, and loss avoidance. Tainting food with formalin is relatively recent, but as adulteration practices go this is but one of many that have been foisted on consumers before. Our food has never been safe with greedy businesses that have tried to maximize profit by mixing edibles with chemicals, and sometime materials that were not intended for human consumption. Despite mounting evidences of adulteration the consumers suffered because we never had any surveillance of our food suppliers and food vendors, or any prosecution for flagrant violation of food safety laws. This happened because the axis that worked against the consumers, politics and business never allowed enforcement of the laws to protect the consumers.
Corruption of any kind, whether in politics, education or business, thrives in an enabling environment. Tainting food with harmful chemicals to fake it as fresh is no different from defrauding people with false promises. Just as people buy week old fruits that are sold to them as fresh, they are also forced to accept politicians who pretend to serve them, and then do the opposite. Politics and politicians provide the platform that sustains and promotes the culture of corruption. Thus we have fake votes for make believe elections, we have fake institutions that provide fake certificates, we have manufacturers that make fake medicines, and of course we have fake fish and fake fruits and vegetables.
Before this anti formalin drive we have had laws that were supposed to ensure safety of foods, prevention of adulteration, and prosecution of businesses that indulge in such malpractices. But these did not work because the enforcement was absent, and the climate that allows growth in malpractices grew luxuriantly with overall breakdown of governance. Law breakers were not only indulged but also patronized and used to further political goals of some people. When people see that they can get away with crimes in one sector, they will attempt in other sectors because they are confident of never getting caught far from getting punished.
When a society is afflicted by malfeasance, it does not stay contained in government or public services alone; it spreads to all body parts of the society. Law alone cannot stop this virus, it requires action from all members of the society. Wish this anti formalin drive initiated by government and civil society activists could be replicated to stop the other menaces in the country although I am mindful that corruption, fakery and fraudulence cannot be uprooted in one generation. But at least a start could be made. And this start could begin with public vigilance and demands for improvement in public services, and make them more transparent. It could start with demands for transparency in law enforcement services, health services, education services, and in agencies and institutions that are meant to provide service to the public. It could also start along with educating people their rights, and how to ensure that these rights are not denied to them.
All cases of corruption, fraud or fakery have two common elements, enticement and opportunity. The enticement to indulge in any of these is offered by the environment where the perpetrators observe others get away with their transgressions, and opportunity is provided by lack of vigilance or lax law enforcement. We will continue to have recurrences of malfeasance and criminal acts in the society if we do not have a national determination and wherewithal to prevent these. I hope and pray that the anti-formalin drive will spread to eradicate other evils that plague us.
The writer is a US based commentator and political analyst.