In the month of Ramadan, I usually break my fasting by taking two/three pieces of khorma (date) and a glass of sherbet (drink), which is a mixture of water and ‘gur’ (molasses, made from sugarcane). This year, I have experienced a new type of molasses that I bought from the city’s Karwan Bazar kitchen market. It was not that sweet and we found some residue, perhaps of ata (coarse flour) or maida (flour) or some other powdered materials, once molasses was mixed with water. I do not have any idea whether there were any chemicals in the molasses that might cause any critical problem in my body. However, once it was noticed, I stopped using that molasses for my sherbet. Instead, I started taking the sherbet of green mangoes for my Iftar. And thus, I ended the rest days of the fasting month without putting any question mark on the safety of green mangoes we used. Obviously, producers of the molasses are nobody but the people of this country; even he might be my neighbour or relative. Anyway, the greediness of those producers has reached such a point that they have lost their human qualities for financial benefits. It is not only a case of cheating, but definitely a crime.
In our childhood, we saw how molasses were produced by boiling sugarcane juice. When molasses got ready to be poured into the earthen pot, people around there could have the taste of hot molasses freely. Sometimes, it was heard that people added some baking soda to whiten molasses, but not any other materials or chemicals. We used to eat seasonal fruits like mango, blackberry, plum (boroi), guava, hog-plum (amra), etc. just plucking from the tree. We never thought that those fruits might cause any harm to our body. In fact, people did not use any chemicals like pesticides to protect their fruits from insects, or for early ripening or long-time preservation.We have the experience that dangerous chemicals are used for early ripening of mangoes, bananas, pineapples and many other fruits grown in this country. Over-doze preservatives, chemicals and other substances are mixed in molasses, vermicelli, edible oil, milk, ghee, and so many food items. We cannot rely on expensive imported fruits, as deadly chemicals, including formalin, might be used to preserve those fruits for long duration so that the vendors do not financially suffer. We have enough doubt, whether there is some improvement in the fisheries sector, as once it was very difficult for us to buy any formalin-free fishes from the markets, particularly in Dhaka.
Although, I do not buy any juice or drinks (like Coke, Sprite, 7-up, etc.) from the market, but there are people who regularly buy (otherwise how those beverage companies are surviving). I am not sure whether there are any harmful chemicals or materials in those juice or drinks. On the other hand, nobody knows whether the date of production and expiry printed on the level of the imported juice and drinks are original or reprinted in Bangladesh. Even, it is difficult to believe that the monitoring authority of the government verifies authenticity of those products honestly. Everyone maintains his own way, but all sufferings come to the general people.
With the advent of science and technology, we have now at our hands those things which can enrich our livelihood or destroy the human civilization within a moment. This has changed the minds of some our people in both directions, good or bad. Due to negative impacts, greediness has conquered the minds of our producers and businessmen. Nobody can ensure that the food items, including local and imported fruits, we buy from markets are not contaminated with various things including life-threatening chemicals. The producers or vendors are not only cheating us for financial gains, but they are putting our lives to a severe situation. The harmful chemicals used in these food products are undoubtedly injurious to our health and ultimately cause many acute and life-long diseases, like cancer, heart disease, paralysis and kidney failure.
I had never faced such problems in my diplomatic career abroad. The producers or sellers of those countries are not like ours, they might have different philosophy of life and business ethics. They also wish to get profit from trading their products, but the difference is that they have not yet lost their moral beliefs and humane qualities. There might be many corrupted or bad people in those countries, but they maintain some ethics, at least while producing or selling food items including baby foods, medicines and life-saving services. In Bangladesh, we do not have such ethics; our greediness has adulterated our humane character only for some extra financial gains. For that, our producers and traders might never agree to compromise until they would have the opportunity to continue the practices. They are not ready to abandon these greedy practices and listen to people’s cry.
Sometimes, I ask myself whether these people have any religion. As far as I know, there is no such religion in the world that permits such activities. Even, I doubt, the non-believers with humanity will do this. In our school life, one of the idioms we had to learn was ‘The devil would not listen to the scriptures’ meaning these revelations bear no impact on them. Then, what is the benefit of making laws or citing good words from holy books? Do they care? All tactics to manage the trading of contaminated products are at their fingertips. We do not see any ray of hope unless those people leave their greed willingly.
A study of the Atomic Energy Commission of Bangladesh has claimed that there is lead in sweet water fish, lead and cadmium in imported hilsa fish. Even, there exists excessive level of lead in some branded milk powder. Presence of antibiotics and growth hormones in poultry and lead in poultry feed is not a new story to our people. These traders involved in such criminal activities only understand their profit, giving a damn to others’ lives.We do not understand how such a handsome of people can continue such business evading the eyes of the concerned authorities of this country. It might be that lack of proper monitoring system and inadequate facilities to control the ongoing contamination of food products as well as managing concerned officials of the government give them the option to put our health in the danger zone. We know that Bangladesh Government is committed to ensure safe food for its people and has already announced its war against food contamination and adulteration. It has established Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) in 2015 to monitor food items sold in the markets. Considering the deteriorating situation of safe food products, it has already become the moral as well as humane obligation of this institution to monitor and take necessary measures to save people’s lives. There are also 71 courts across the country working under the Food Safety Act. Sometimes, we see mobile courts, run by the magistrates, are punishing the offenders selling rotten meat, dead chicken, poisonous chemicals mixed food products, etc. Since last few years, Bangladesh has been celebrating the National Food Safety Day every year to create awareness among our people so that they have safe food. But why we do not see the expected results from those efforts? Has any organization done the analysis of the on-going situation and find out the causes behind? Unless it is done, how further steps could be taken to ensure availability of safe food in the markets? Nobody knows whether the day will come in our life to have such markets where we will be able to buy food products without any hesitation.
I would like to share that every upazila might have a committee, having members from the government offices as well as local representatives and civil society, to create awareness among the people and to monitor factories or production and trading houses of that upazila. Furthermore, various business chambers (central, division or district level organisations) might play an important role in strengthening government’s endeavours in providing smooth supply of safe food for all its citizens.
The people of Bangladesh are handicapped at the hands of so-called dishonest producers and traders, the law is in their captivity, the values are groaning silently. But how long the nation will be tolerating reign of those few people? Indeed, we have the responsibility to save the people of the country especially the future generation from their hands. The Government, along with the people, should have to stand against dishonest traders and eradicate those life-threatening practices from the country to ensure its citizens a healthy life for a better nation.
The writer is a former ambassador and secretary