Friday, May 16, 2014

A public hartal on formalin treated fish/fruits

A public hartal on formalin treated fish/fruits
M. Serajul Islam

When I was growing up, I used to accompany my father sometimes to the fish market in New Market in Dhaka.  That was in the 1950s and 1960s. I hated going there because of the smell and the flies. The unhygienic conditions of the market and the fact that a lot of the fish sold there those days were decaying brought the flies to the Fish Market like pins to the magnet. Those flies started to desert the fish market not just in New Market in Dhaka but also in all the fish markets in the country at first slowly and before the people realized why, totally. The fish markets became spic and span like someone had waved a magic wand.  

There was however no magic in what happened in the fish markets. There was no drive by the authorities to make the markets clean so that the flies would go away. In fact, the traders were as merrily selling decaying fish as they were in the days when my father used to go to the fish market in New Market; only the Market has now become more crowded and bigger with many times more fish sold than when my father’s days. Therefore something strange was happening in the fish market. But neither the authorities nor the buyers were concerned why the flies had suddenly left the fish markets of the country because the traders had found the way to keep them out, keep their fish looking fresh and not decaying and fooling the buyers.

The magic later started to visit the people in their homes. The fruits that they were buying were not decaying for long period of time. Bananas that had to be eaten as quickly as they were brought home could lie on the table for days with little signs of softening or decaying. Other fruits, many imported from abroad like the apples and the grapes were likewise remaining fresh for unusual period of time, like Nature had forgotten to act upon them. They were not decaying even when they were left uneaten in the open for a long time. The fish and the fruits in Bangladesh seemed like they had found the way to fight Nature!

Then the magic was revealed. It was not black magic or that Nature had suddenly lost its power. It was formalin doing the trick. Pure and simple formalin that is used to keep the dead bodies from decaying so that their burial could be delayed so that their  close relatives could come from a distance and  see them for one last time before they were buried or cremated. Used in fish and fruits, the traders could sell their perishable products without any wasted by Nature.

Formalin is of course poison. It sends people to their death as surely as they keep dead bodies fresh for a while. Consuming fish/fruits treated with formalin is a slow process of death by poisoning. The dishonest traders who are involved in using formalin are therefore as guilty as those who commit murders in cold blood. In fact, these dishonest traders are worse than those who come before the law accused of killing at the heat of the moment. There is no ambiguity in what is happening here. Traders are selling products and are using formalin in full knowledge that they are poisoning their customers. What is absurd and totally unbelievable is the response of the other stakeholders in this deadly game, namely the authorities and the customers.

The authorities have now known the truth about formalin for quite sometime. Yet the only actions that they have taken so far is burn and destroy some of the formalin treated products. Not one of the traders who are poisoning their customers systematically and in cold blood has been brought before the law. Any country where such acts of cold-blooded slow poisoning of consumers would have come to public attention, capital punishment would have been served on the traders and the issue would have become history almost instantly. Not so in Bangladesh. The more the media exposed the extent of such public poisoning by formalin, the less the authorities seemed interested to bring such a dangerous matter to an end. In fact, using formalin on perishable products has come to stay. It appears like the traders using formalin have won their fight with the authorities by befriending them!

That points to where Bangladesh is going these days. Everything is about making money. Laws and legality are there to help dishonest people make money provided of course they share their money with the political leadership in power and the authorities. The use of formalin and the trade that goes with it involves humungous amount of money conducted under the table where the guardians of the law are those who sustain the breakers of the law that explains why not one of these “formalin killers” have been punished. The recent murders in Narayanganj therefore should not surprise anyone; it is a public proof of the nexus of the lawbreakers and those in power, including the law enforcing agencies.

That leaves the consumers in Bangladesh as the sacrificial lambs in the deadly game of formalin. They are accepting death by formalin without protest. Their silence is either sheer stupidity or perhaps it underlines the new reality about Bangladesh; that the people have lost their ability to react to the array of lies/untruth in their public domain even when it threatens our own lives. However, it is not just their lives that formalin threatens; it threatens the lives of their future generation and therefore, the consumers must wake up from their slumber and act. Clearly, the authorities would not end the slow poisoning with formalin. The nexus of corruption is too deep and the money involved is too much to encourage them to act in the interests of the people. Therefore they cannot go into denial over formalin anymore. Denial over what is going on in politics has led to the loss of the most fundamental of all their rights, namely their right to vote, that has been taken away from them. If they go into denial over formalin any longer, they would now lose their lives and those of the future generations.

There is a simple and easy way for the people of Bangladesh to end the formalin threat. It is in their hands if only they deice to act. They should simply refuse to buy fruits and fish that are not essential for their survival.  They should do a reverse hartal by refusing to be victims. If they show such a resolve, they would undoubtedly have the media by their side to spread the message of the boycott. If the people could keep the boycott going for a reasonable length of time, they would be able to put these dishonest traders out of business. Of course there would be a flip side to such a mass effort. The producers, all honest people who are from the masses, would be hurt. But then the producers are hurt anyway because they get only a small part of their efforts for their products. The nexus of the traders, the middlemen and the authorities take away most of their profit leaving just a pittance for them.

Therefore although in the short term the producers of  fish/fruits would suffer from a people inspired hartal against the murderous formalin traders and their partners in crime in politics and administration, in the end they too would be the winner. The people have suffered a great deal from hartal by the politicians. It is time they do a hartal in reverse and use it to their advantage and instead of becoming the victims of hartals; use it for a good cause and become the victors.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and his email id  is

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