Panjim: Few places are so culinarily single-minded as Goa. For the natives of India’s smallest state, the most preferred greeting between friends and acquaintances has traditionally been “what fish are you cooking today?" Actually, most standard conversational gambits unerringly return to this central obsession in one way or another. Nothing in the world captivates the Goan imagination like the daily question of what seafood is available at what price from which vendor. In this area of life, differences of cash, caste and creed fade to nothingness. All Goans want fish, and that is simply that.

Then all of a sudden on 12 July, things became considerably more complicated. The state Food and Drug Administration conducted spot checks for formalin (a chemical reduction of highly carcinogenic formaldehyde, used as a preservative in laboratories and morgues) in shipments of fish from other Indian states at the wholesale market near Margao in South Goa. The results were positive, and 17 truckloads were impounded. Immediately, irate fish traders across the state suspended operations in protest. Overnight, the visibly harried FDA Director Jyoti Sardesai reversed her agency’s original position, saying “as a precautionary move, we instructed fish vendors to not distribute till detailed laboratory reports were available. The results showed that the presence of formalin was within permissible limits. The fish is safe for consumption."

Literally within minutes of this deeply dubious statement becoming public, social media erupted with anger and ridicule. From New York, where she runs the Goes-Gomes Lab at Columbia University (with her husband Joaquim Goes), the distinguished biological oceanographer Helga do Rosario Gomes wrote a devastating public letter that said, “Formalin is a recognised carcinogen and health hazard by agencies like the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), National Toxicology Program, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Cancer Institute all of who constantly monitor its airborne concentrations and toxicity. Their major concern is for industrial workers, doctors, technicians and mortuary employees who can possibly inhale it or come in contact with it during the course of their work. But a regular fish eater eating a sample laden with formalin? That is almost unheard of unless you are at the mercy of a despicable and unscrupulous fish industry probably aided and abetted by an equally monstrous and treacherous government."

Prominently headlined “Assault on the Goan culture", this scientifically authoritative intervention by a highly qualified daughter of the soil was very widely printed and circulated. It effectively decapitated the government’s desperate attempts to cover-up, and return to business as usual. Then, in an historically unprecedented development, Goans stopped buying fish. The great seafood markets of this fish-obsessed state remained eerily deserted. On an average day in monsoon months, the state consumes around half-a-million dollars worth of imported fish (which can easily double during high season). So the consumer-led stalemate speedily tabulated massive losses for major vendors. Finally, the beleaguered chief minister Manohar Parrikar was compelled to act. He banned the import of fish until 1 August, which dates coincides with the lifting of Goa’s self-imposed mechanized fishing embargo that takes effect for two months each year in order to allow natural replenishment of stocks.

A system gone rogue

Please Sir, Mr. God of Death,
Don’t make it my turn today,
not today,
there is fish curry for dinner.

Those famous lines by the beloved laureate B. B. (Bakibab) Borkar resonate profoundly in the Goan soul. Whether tangy coconut-rich hooman or ambot-tik mouth-wateringly soured by kokum, the identity of the people of this coastal state is inextricably linked to marine bounty. As Gomes recounted in her passionate appeal to countrymen and women back home, “Fish lies at the core of our culture. As a kid growing in Verna and walking to school I would hear the morning greeting “Nusteak kitem mellam gho?" “What did you get for fish today?"

The 1970s world Gomes described remains integral to Goa’s image, where families pass down similar memories right alongside more corporeal heirlooms. They recall simpler times when communities lived sustainably within a pristine natural environment, and contentment reigned. Today, these powerful recollections of Arcadian freedom still underline the tiny state’s seemingly unstoppable appeal to urban Indians, who are fatigued by battling dystopian scenarios back home.

What does this have to do with the price of fish? Pretty much everything. Back in the times Gomes recalls so vividly, India had barely begun to nurture a recognizable tourism industry. When the Taj group was attracted to Goa to build a pioneering five-star hotel resort by the state’s first chief minister Dayanand Bandodkar, the project was reckoned extremely risky, and designed to remain shut for several months each year. The prevailing logic was Indians aren’t beachgoers, and would under no circumstances become sun-worshipping loungers, while Europeans could never be persuaded to fly all the way to Asia to catch tans much more cheaply available in Spain or Greece.

When the first charter flight arrived in Goa in the mid-1980s, it disgorged Germans headed to that same first Taj hotel at Sinquerim. En route, the veteran environmentalist Roland Martins flung cow dung on their bus, predicting imminent ruin to Goa’s environment, society and culture by an onslaught of budget tourism. His fellow citizens looked around to their intact fields and orchards, and tapped their brows to make jokes about the campaigner’s mental stability. But fast forward to 2018 after three decades of ceaseless assault on their landscapes and lifestyle, and the nay-sayers have all turned true believer. A perfect storm of unchecked migration, unregulated tourism run amok, and abysmally poor governance is tearing Goa to unrecognizable shreds. Formalin in fish is just one glaring symptom of a system gone irredeemably rogue.

Compromised politics

Just like most ills that plague the contemporary subcontinent, the fundamental underlying problem in Goa is disgraceful politics. To some extent, the entrenched flaws of Indian democracy were held in abeyance as long as the newly liberated former Estado da India Portuguesa remained centrally governed as Union Territory. But very rapidly after statehood was established in 1989, an exceptionally venal, incompetent and shameless cabal of MLAs established stranglehold onto Goa’s political economy, in close collaboration with (at that time, comparatively small-scale) local oligarchs who had inherited mining franchises that functioned as foreign exchange cash cows.

Almost all those small town satraps are still there, after shuffling parties and portfolios several times, and now greatly bloated by graft on a global scale. Meanwhile, their original moneymen cronies have become billionaires. To a great extent, the state political sphere is defined by the rivalries and infighting between this perennial cast of shady characters.

At the centre of the festering mess is the paramount Goan politician of the 21st century, the original IIT-derived “common man," Manohar Parrikar. Quickly identified as unusually talented, with broad-based appeal to all sections of Goa’s many-layered society, he was marked for high office from his very first election success in 1994. Since then he’s had no competition from within the BJP, and decimated the opposition with a combination of irresistibly folksy appeal and innate ruthlessness. When he came into the legislature, the state politics were a national joke, with 13 separate administrations in power until 2002. Parrikar brought stability, and in 2009 presciently cast his lot behind Narendra Modi, remarking about the other contender for party leadership, “Pickle tastes good when it is left to mature for a year. But if you keep it for more than two years, it turns rancid. Advaniji’s period is more or less over."

Parrikar’s heavily touted closeness to Modi makes him unassailable in Goa, even as his party’s spectacular mandate from 2012 disappeared in the state elections in 2017. The BJP won only 13 seats while the Congress won 17, but he was controversially returned to office , after accommodating a number of ambitious rivals in his new cabinet. Since then the veteran politician has not been able to control his fractious colleagues, partly due to absences caused by a thinly-veiled secret medical condition that most recently required him to spend three months earlier this year at the Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Centre in New York.

The collective wisdom in Goa is that the strongman of state politics is compromised and vulnerable, as most painfully illustrated by the open warfare that has broken out between his ministers over the formalin issue.

Over the past week, the popular press in Goa led by O Heraldo—once the last Portuguese language newspaper in Asia—has devoted considerable resources to investigating the innards of the fish trade in Goa. They allege that Maulana Ibrahim, the powerful trader who has come to dominate imports into the state, and exerts monopolistic power to manipulate prices, is closely associated with Vijai Sardesai, the Town and Country Planning minister and MLA of Fatorda (where the biggest wholesale market of the state is located) whose Goa Forward Party provided the crucial support that allowed the BJP to form its government under Parrikar. This is the line taken by Sardesai’s colleague, the Health Minister Vishwajit Rane, who has repeatedly complained to the media, “some people with vested interests are making money on fish imports and destroying lives of people. I would appeal to the state government to permanently ban the import of fish."

Irate and feeling betrayed, Sardesai has been fighting back more vehemently with each passing day. “Let the Health Minister come and take over and run the market", he said. Later he suggested his brand new market be shut down immediately, “There’s an attempt to defame me…let us put all doubts to rest. Let the market be moved." With Parrikar seemingly unable to curb his juniors from their fierce war of words, there is now considerable doubt that fish imports will resume any time soon in Goa, at least until a comprehensive testing regime is put in place of the breadth and standard that has never been seen in India before.

Postscript

While the politicians squabble, there is much less fish in the market than any time in recent memory, which leaves the Goan with a confounding existential problem. What is life, without fish? The answer seems pretty clear, and involves a rethinking of basic values to refocus on sustainability. Prahlad Sukhthankar owns and operates the popular Black Sheep Bistro restaurant, which has won a permanent position in any serious list of the best restaurants in the country. He says his fish supply was never threatened, because the restaurant serves local catch, and “this subject has brought malpractices of distributors to the forefront and I hope it will educate the consumer on the importance of local and seasonal product sourcing which is crucial for a healthy lifestyle."

That’s also what Aaron Lobo says. The Cambridge-educated marine biologist says “we should NOT be eating sea fish (read fish staples such as mackerel, kingfish and pomfret) in the monsoon months. It’s obvious it is far from “fresh". To cater to demand traders can go to any lengths including lacing fish with preservatives such as formalin. But we have better options. I have fishermen from my village, who supply me with their fresh catch who I can be sure are not lacing it with preservatives. As a rule of thumb for my food I rely more on people and less on labels."

Those sentiments echo the half-forgotten world that Helga do Rosario Gomes still cherishes as the basis of her culture. After formalin, the future is shaping up very much to resemble the past.

Vivek Menezes is a widely published writer and photographer.

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