FT OPINION DESK
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is associated with values synonymous with restraint, patience, and commitment. It is not only the month of spiritual reflection, improvement, increased devotion, and worship but also the period when Muslims are expected to practice increased self-discipline and compassion and stay away from greed and bad practices.
It is a month where one expects to see justice and compliance with rules, social and legal obligations.
Unfortunately, as in the past, this month has turned once again into a month where traders, in their greedy pursuit of profit, are using the opportunities presented to them during Ramadan to exploit consumers.
Values such as honesty and integrity, far from being bolstered during this holy month, are being compromised as traders fleece ordinary consumers for whatever can be collected through inordinate pricing and the selling of adulterated produce.
Prices of essential ingredients associated with the preparation of different kinds of items for iftar have seen an excessive rise. These ingredients include sugar, edible oil, aubergine, onion, garlic, potato, spices, green chili, vegetables, chickpea, and green papaya. Prices of gram, garlic, onion, cucumber, lemon, and sugar have also soared, along with a noticeable rise in the prices of fish, chicken, mutton, and beef
Surveys carried out by the print and electronic media in Shahjahanpur, Malibagh, Shantinagar, Karwan Bazar, and Shyam Bazar have indicated that the price of aubergine has gone up by nearly 80% over the last few days. When asked by the consumer as to why the prices have gone up so sharply, the regular answer is that the retailers should not be blamed if the wholesalers have raised the price.
In turn, when the wholesalers are asked, they generally respond that they have been forced to raise the price because of the increase in the cost of transportation of the product from its source to the city.
It is alleged that prices are also affected by the increase in tolls which have to be paid by middle-men to “parties” and “groups” for safe passage. One can only wonder whether the law and order representatives guarding the communication network are functioning as well as they are expected to.
To this dynamic has also been added another unfortunate aspect — adulteration, the use of preservatives, fabric dyes, chemicals, formalin, and carbide.
A case in point was a recent media report that a mobile food inspection team identified some of the factories from where unscrupulous businessmen were producing adulterated sub-standard vermicelli and then flooding the city markets as well as rural haats and bazaars with this dangerous product.
In some cases, it was discovered that the fake factories (keeping the main entrance under lock and key) were producing this vermicelli in unhygienic conditions (kneading the dough with their feet) and sometimes drying the vermicelli under the open sky in dirty places where stray dogs, cows, cats, and chicken defecate and roam about freely.
Dishonest traders appear to have no compunction in mal-treating seasonal fruits to improve their appearance for the consumer. This is done without any respect for public health and the provisions set forth in the Consumer Rights Protection Act, 2009, Food Safety Act, 2013, and the Formalin Control Act, 2015.
This is happening partially because there is very little organised monitoring of cheap food producers and food manufacturers in the country.
Greater enforcement is needed
The Bangladesh Standard Testing Institution (BSTI) has claimed that they have conducted a total of nearly a thousand mobile courts and surveillance efforts between July 2016 and May 2017 and recovered crores in fines.
They have apparently also sealed over 40 enterprises on charges of adulteration. While this is encouraging, they are really only touching the tip of the iceberg.
They also need to keep careful records and documentation of inspection already carried out. It will require coordination between the different agencies.
These drives should also not be arbitrary in character and should only be carried out by trained inspectors with the help of instruments that function properly (especially while checking for use of formalin).
Authorities executing the Mobile Court Act facility also need to ensure that after verifying the evidence and while executing the sentence, necessary powers of defense is provided to the accused — so that there is no violation of rights as outlined in different Sections of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898.
Food safety is of paramount importance for all of us as unsafe foods can cause serious diseases. The Icddr,b, an international health research organisation in Dhaka, has revealed that the “number of hospital visits per day for treatment of diarrhea due to food and waterborne causes is very distressful” (Tasmiah Nuhiya Ahmed). Apparently, food and water-borne diseases affect more than a million people every year in Bangladesh.
Rigorous implementation of regulations and standards is vital if we are to expand, diversify, and increase export of our food items abroad. This has already been exemplified by the fact that fish from Bangladesh is beginning to regain its export status in different markets in the European Union.
We have also noticed how the media reported that chemical free mango exports to supermarkets in the UK had started from different production points in Chapainawabganj. The first shipment consisted of three tons.
This success came from mango farmers apparently starting to use the modern fruit bagging technology for different kinds of mangoes growing at this time of the year. This enabled them to avoid the use of harmful insecticides.
This month of Ramadan can be our source of inspiration towards helping others. In this context, it would be worthwhile to refer to the Consumers Protection Act, 2009 and the paradigm of punishable offences under this Act.
There is consensus that this includes: (a) Selling or offering for sale at a higher price than the price prescribed by any law or rule to any product, medicine, or service; (b) knowingly selling or offering to sell any adulterated product; (c) deceiving people in general through false and untrue advertisement with the idea of selling a product; (d) using any false weight or measure of length and thereby defrauding a customer, and (e) giving fewer products than advertised and paid for by the customer.
A complaint with regard to any of these charges may be filed by any consumer or organisation working for consumer rights with the Directorate General, National Consumer Rights Protection Department.
We need to remember that food safety must be evaluated in terms of additional cost to consumers. The ethos of Ramadan teaches us to work together for common benefit and welfare, irrespective of faith. Let us try to do just that.
- Muhammad Zamir (a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance)