Published in The Independent, June 30th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam
In a dinner party recently, a doctor gave us some spine chilling information on how the traders of fruit and fish are poisoning us day in and day out. The discussion that led to the doctor to talk on the subject came up when someone referred to a picture in an English daily that showed a mango farmer spraying chemicals on mangoes that were already ripe so that they do not rot. He said sarcastically that soon there would not be any necessity of sending a dead body to the morgue to keep it fresh for a few days pending burial because the formalin we are being forced to take with fruits and fish would keep the dead bodies from rotting.
Others who joined the discussion came up with other unbelievable stories of their own. One of the guests said that these days, a favourite roadside fruit in Motijheel and Bangabandhu Avenue is the papaya. These papayas are very sweet but such sweetness is hardly the credit of nature. The papayas are soaked in a chemical solution for a few minutes to give it the taste that has made it such a favourite of the public only that those who are eating it do not know that the sweetness is poison. The story of the papaya has another twist. These sellers poisoning their buyers with their papayas can be seen carefully keeping the papaya seeds stored in a corner. They do not retain these seeds because they can be cooked and eaten as some seeds are eaten; these are retained to be sold to unscrupulous traders who mix it with black pepper as papaya seeds and black pepper have a great deal of similarity!
On banana, that is such a favourite fruit for all of us, one of the guests said that when bananas ripen, they do so from the top layer and gradually go down to the other layers. In other words, naturally all rows of bananas in a bunch do not ripen simultaneously. Not so anymore in Bangladesh where unscrupulous traders using chemicals manage to ripen all the rows of bananas in a bunch simultaneously. Fruits like apples can be kept as long as one wants without any worry of rotting. Mangoes, the king of fruits, that we thought was free from the poisonous hands of the traders are no longer safe and have also come into the ambit of these unscrupulous people as in their greed to make money out of the last mango fruit in their possession, they now use chemicals so that they do not lose even a single mango to nature. The use of formalin to keep fish from rotting was also mentioned by quite a few guests. Buyers of fish became aware that they were being poisoned when they started noticing something eerie about the fish markets. Somehow the flies had abandoned the fish markets! In the days before these criminals entered the trade, buying fish in a fish market was perhaps one of the most unpopular things one was forced to do because the fish markets were a haven for the flies. The formalin literally drove the flies away to seek dirtier pastures. Today, buyers look for flies in a fish market to be assured that they are buying fish not treated with formalin!
The presence of unscrupulous traders and businessmen in developing societies is not a matter of great surprise. However, what is happening in Bangladesh in the fish and fruits trade is exceptional. These traders cannot be called unscrupulous and left at that. They are criminals not of the ordinary types that indulge in thefts but hardened criminals who have no value for human lives. There have been efforts during the Caretaker Government when these criminal acts came to public focus because of the good work of the private TV channels and the media. We have seen magistrates visit fish and fruits markets and taking action against traders found using chemicals to keep their products fresh. In recent times, we have also seen truckloads of mangoes being destroyed because these were treated with chemicals for malafide reasons. It does not seem like that such actions against these criminals masquerading as traders has had the desired effect. One of the guests at the dinner table said that she does not eat banana anymore, regretting that the fruit has been her favourite since as long as she can remember. The guests were also unanimous about denying themselves of one of the pleasures in Bangladesh in summer, namely indulging in mangoes unless they are assured that these are safe which means they do not buy mangoes from the market anymore.
It is not that all the fish and fruits in the market are treated chemically to keep them fresh that is poison for those who eat these items. Nevertheless, the problem is widespread. The government's action to send a magistrate once in a while to the market and destroy a truckload of mangoes will not even scrape the problem, let alone resolve it. The laws are also extremely inadequate to deal with a problem that is far bigger than the government cares to acknowledge. The time to take action to nip this problem in the bud is fast slipping away with consequences that could be devastating in not too distant in the future. We all know what has happened to Dhaka where small encroachments by land grabbers were overlooked and in some cases, encouraged by the regulators leading to a situation today where it is impossible to correct it anymore. In case of the slow poisoning to which we are being subjected everyday by the fish and the fruits that we are being forced to eat without any help from the government may very soon create the same situation the land grabbers have done with Dhaka city; only in the case of the fish and the fruits, we will have to pay with our lives. These criminals poisoning us know too well that it is just a small financial loss with which they can be punished today because the law does not provide for anything more. It is up to our authorities and our law makers to correct a very dangerous situation where people are getting away with murder in daylight for practically no punishment at all.
On another level, there is a very serious issue here. For a small financial gain, why do these traders play with human lives? Ours is a country of 160 million people that is a huge market for traders and businessmen to make money by honest means. True, there are problems in infrastructure that sometimes cause these traders to lose some of their products to the natural process. To choose murder to overcome such loss is incredible. In no other society would traders choose to do what our fish and fruits traders are doing because the laws would ensure that they do not dare to do so. More importantly, that such an action for financial gain would be incomprehensible in any other society. Our thinkers who study our people and society would do the nation a lot of good if they would study the behaviour of the fish and fruits traders of Bangladesh to find out the reasons for their love for formalin and other poisonous chemicals. Is it that they do so because they know the law is too soft or is it that they are psychopaths?
(The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan)