By Krishnaraj Rao, Mumbai
As of July 2014, selling food on the street will be a criminal activity. Say goodbye to your favourite panipuri wala, sandwich wala, frankies stand and every other kind of street food vendor. Also bid farewell to small establishments like the neighbourhood mithaiwala, street-corner bakery, doodhwala, lassiwala and kulfi-wala. You will never again eat tangdi-kabab at roadside butcher-shops-cum-kabab-
But it doesn’t end there. You should worry even if you are one of those enterprising housewives selling homemade chocolates, cupcakes, marzipan bunnies and Easter eggs to your friends and neighbours in the festive seasons. In the popular serial Taarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chasma, Madhavi Bhide — the typical middle-class housewife — supplements her penny-pinching husband’s income by supplying papads and pickles. Well, now Madhavi faces a choice: either take a license by paying a fee of Rs 2000/-, or face imprisonment of upto six months or penalty of upto Rs 5 lakhs, under Section 63 of the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006.
But even after she gets a licence, a designated Food Safety Officer may pay her a visit, find that her kitchen does not meet FSSAI’s standards, and ask her to spend some serious money in modifying her kitchen, or else shut down. If she fails to comply, she may be fined lakhs of rupees, or even imprisoned for six months. And even if Madhavi spends lakhs of rupees to upgrade her kitchen, the officer (a government employee empowered under the Food Safety and Standards Act) may still threaten to revoke her license. In order to keep her license, she may end up paying bribes of several thousand every month.
Food Safety Standards Authority of India has notified July 1, 2014 as the deadline for getting registration and license with Food Safety and Standards Authority. We can hope that this deadline will be postponed as it has been since August 2012, which was the original deadline. But the sword will continue to hang over our heads… unless, of course, a new government elected at the Centre furiously back-pedals.
Not just Cooks, but also Transporters and Sellers
Guys, say goodbye to the dabba-walla who carries your wife’s home-cooked lunch to your office. Yes, he doesn’t open the dabba and touch the food, but as he is a transporter and handler of food, he is a Food Business Operator as defined under the Food Safety (Licencing) Regulations 2011. The dabba-walla’s rough-and-ready travel by the Churchgate local’s luggage van cannot possibly meet FSSAI’s hygienic standards.
Your neighbourhood kirana-store, who sells grains, spices, nuts, oil, biscuits etc. is also in jeopardy. Unless he invests lakhs or crores of rupees for upgrading his shop with air-conditioners, glass doors, freshly painted ceilings and marble floors etc, he may not be given a license to sell food items. Then he cannot sell so much as a toffee or a bottle of packaged water.
This is the brave new world envisioned by Govt. Of India, which is scheduled to dawn after the July 1, 2014 deadline of Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations, 2011.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Bubbling with good intentions, the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations 2011, are a nationwide disaster-in-the-making. It is about to hit the common man right where it hurts most. Wham! Right in his wallet!
Indeed, the conditions imposed on storage, preparation and handling of foods are so stringent that even household kitchens and office canteens may not make the cut.
Big Business is the Gainer
Who can possibly meet the impossibly high standards of food preparation and storage set by dozens of scientists at FSSAI? The likes of McDonalds and Pizza Hut may have no difficulties, and ditto for Pepsi, Coke, Haldirams and Britannia. Also, big retail outlets like D-Mart and Big Bazaar.
But small outfits will have no option but to close down, or to operate on the fringes as criminal offenders and fugitives. The current dispensation has given a death sentence to the entire unorganized food sector spread all over the country — consisting of many million self-employed men and women living in various cities, towns and even the remotest villages. In tiny settlements on snowy mountain-tops, or in the midst of forests and deserts, entire families and communities work together to survive by selling various food products to travelers and pilgrims. This vibrant food service industry of India is now marked for slaughter by Government of India. One is left wondering why.
Yes, these people will definitely try to survive by bribing the Food Safety Officers. But in the process, they will be harassed, accused of criminal offenses, and be made into undertrials or convicts — criminalized and marginalized for the offense of earning their living by selling food!
Flying under the Radar
How did this horrific thing come to pass? How did such a far-reaching legislation slip unnoticed, like a jumbo jet flying under the radar? One explanation is: it happened because the Food Safety Act 2006 and the lengthy licensing regulations seemed like a good thing at first.
Food was earlier regulated under various orders passed by the union government, such as Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954, Fruit Products Order 1955, Meat Products Order 1973, and Milk & Milk Product Order 1992. Some people in the food industry actively lobbied for all these orders to be unified, so that implementation would be easier. However, the unification exercise was taken up with so much zeal by bureaucrats that it led to a kind of bureaucratic overreach. In the words of Gokul Patnaik (098100 63433), a retired IAS officer who was formerly chairman of APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) is among those who lobbied for such a unification. And now, on hindsight, he regrets the outcome. “We seem to have created a Frankenstein’s monster, whose appetite for controlling our lives seems endless,” he remarks.
Indeed, if you casually browse through Food Safety Act and Regulations with a common man’s eye, it seems like a well-intentioned (if over-ambitious) effort to improve the quality of the food that all of us – both rich and poor – eat and drink. The standards imposed on the licensees are formulated by committees peopled by well-known scientists from all over the country. These standards are aimed at reducing pesticides, enzymes, antibiotics, harmful bacteria, and biological contaminants like hair. Who can possibly argue with that? How can anybody say that it is not a good thing for safeguarding public health?
Public consultations were also held in 2008, and trade bodies like FICCI and CII represented civil society. Hawkers and enterprising housewives were never aware of these consultations, and even if they were aware, would not have been able to put across their concerns in a way that the bureaucrats would understand.
Indeed, the impossibility of holding genuine stakeholder consultations becomes apparent when you consider the mind-boggling span of the term “Food Business Operator”. It climbs up the ladder of scale starting from the tiniest iterant chai-samosa vendors, temporary and permanent food stalls, home-based canteens and dabbawalas. It encompasses langars of office and school canteens, langars in gurdwaras, distribution of various prasads in temples, religious gatherings and fairs, and wedding feasts. And at the top of the ladder are importers, packers, cold storages, warehouses, transporters, retailers, wholesalers, distributors and five star hotels.
Some traders’ associations and food manufacturers’ bodies opposed these regulations, but that too may have been written off as a knee-jerk reaction; after all, who among us says yes to more regulation? The remarks of Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) can be found here here: http://www.cait.in/cait-
The members of All India Food Processors Association (AIFPA) are on the central advisory committee, scientific panels and expert groups of Food Safety Authority. Dharam Vir Malhan (9868218848), Executive Secretary of AIFPA and formerly head of the Modern Foods, a government enterprise, is coordinating the participation of these members, who are deeply aware of the beneficial as well as adverse consequences of the proposed new licensing regime. “Going from feedback that I receive from food industry stakeholders at various levels, the new regulations are over-ambitious and at many places, highly impractical to implement,” Mr Malhan says mildly.
This is an understatement. The administrative burden at various levels is enormous and widespread. Registration under the Food Safety Act is to be done by local bodies i.e. municipalities and gram panchayats. The licensing mechanism is in state and centre, depending on the scale of the manufacturer. Large scale entities will require multiple licenses – one for each separate activity such as import, repacking, transportation etc., and one for each location of factories, warehouses, etc. The multiplicity of the paperwork required, and the massive reach and discretionary powers of the officials within the registration and licensing mechanisms is a sure-fire formula for both corruption and administrative overload.
According to its preamble, the Food Safety Act was conceptualized to consolidate the existing food laws; one presumes that the intention was to simplify, and not to complicate. Very clearly, this exercise has gone off track.
Killing Micro-enterprises & Self-employment at Birth
The full menace of the regulations has clearly not been understood by civil society and activists; otherwise human rights crusaders would have been up in arms! Because even mild enforcement of these regulations will criminalize over 99 per cent of the non-packaged food sector in our country, rendering them liable for penalties of several lakhs of rupees and several months of imprisonment. If that is not a human rights outrage, then what is?
Such a formal business environment – where one is required to get a registration and license before selling his first plate of vada-pav – means that tiny food businesses may never come into existence… or may be seen as an unlawful enterprise from day one!
Let us take an example to understand how small businesses grow. Take the case of a neighbourhood auntie who prepares delicious parathas. One day, a group of young MBA students move into the neighbouring flat as paying guests. As a neighbourly gesture, the auntie sends them six parathas to go with their morning tea. The love the fresh hot parathas, and so they request the auntie to send them a dozen parathas every morning for their breakfast, and they voluntarily offer to pay Rs 5 per paratha. And then, word spreads among their friends, and the auntie, who used to cook only for herself and her family, now finds herself supplying parathas to several groups of paying guests in the neighbourhood. Voila, a food entrepreneur is born!
However, FSSAI’s regulations say that as soon as the students offer to pay for the parathas, the auntie has to apply for a license from FSSAI and pay Rs 2000 for a license. The Food Safety Officer may then come to her house and check her kitchen. He may deny her a license if her ceiling paint is peeling off, and while parting, warn her that if she continues to feed her neighbours, he can fine her Rs 5 lakh or drag her before a special court and get her imprisoned for six months! Behold, a food entrepreneur has been killed at birth!
Indian cuisine is full of experimental products, and street foods are at the cutting edge of experimentation. For example, popular items like bread pakodas, Chinese Bhel, roti-rolls and kathi-rolls and novelty items like ice-cream pakodas have all sprung up in response to entrepreneurial inventiveness sustained by market demand. All Indian foods have been created in this way. An over-scientific approach to the process and formulation is toxic to innovation. So, it is alarming that FSSAI’s bloated bureaucratic set-up wants to not only control the cooking and storage environment, but also control the FORMULATION of each and every item, and confine it within documented parameters!
Under the new FSSAI regime, all known items are standardized and their formulations are written down. If someone wishes to make a new item – say an item like bread-pakoda using crushed banana wafers in the filling – then he must first submit this formulation to FSSAI and seek their approval for it – a process that typically takes two or three years. And the new regime makes producing such innovative foods and selling them without approval a punishable offense!
It is both audacious and ridiculous to even attempt an exercise of defining standards for every food in India. Because a “chutney” in every state, every district, every tehsil, every caste and community has very different ingredients and methods of preparation. A simple thing like a roti tastes very different in every household, and has varying amounts of ghee, salt, thickness, diameter etc. The same goes for hundreds of types of halwas made in temples, gurdwaras and sweetmeat shops. How can a centralized body of scientists and bureaucrats like FSSAI impose standards for such things? But that is precisely what it is doing!
Manufacturing apart, it is also an offense now to import and sell a novel food that is well accepted abroad but not currently being sold in India – such as, say, fresh strawberries encased in a hard chocolate cover. Importers will not be able to release their stocks into the markets unless FSSAI first tests and approves it for public consumption.
Gokul Patnaik remarks, “If this sort of pre-approval process were in force in olden days, the halwais could never have invented foods like rasgollas and jelebis. Innovations happen in the kitchen at the spur of the moment, and the only approval needed is from the tastebuds of customers willing to pay for them. For bureaucrats to insist that a gulab jamun must only have this much sugar and this much ghee – no more and no less – is to impose a bureaucratic approach on cooking itself! This can only result in killing innovation!”
Imposing Inspector Raj over Food
The FSSAI Act mandates Food Safety Commissioners in every state to appoint numerous government employees as Food Safety Officers, with powers to slap a closure notice on any Food Business Operator, and also slap penalties of upto one lakh on them for any offense defined under the Food Safety Act. In the name of safeguarding the health and well-being of India, this is a return to inspector-raj and rampant bribery, far worse than the pre-liberalization days.
India’s people have to raise their voice against this over-zealous bureaucracy, and the time is now.
REFERENCE MATERIAL: Read the highlighted paragraphs in the Food Safety Act 2006 and Food Safety (Licensing) Regulations 2011, which can be downloaded from https://app.box.com/s/