Combating Food Crimes: Need for Ombudsman

by Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan

Adulteration in food is no less than a crime like murdering for economic gain. Let’s begin with some newspaper reports to find out the underlying factors, which are giving way to crimes involving food:

News report I: In order to whiten the rice, some traders mixing up urea fertilizer, which causes headache, eyesight degradation and other stomach related diseases. Sale of such adulterated rice is rampant in Lalmonirhat. (The Daily Ittefaq, 13 December, 1999)

News report II: More than 50% of food and allied items marketed in the country is adulterated, according to Institute of Public Health Officials. (ASK, Human Rights Report in Bangladesh1999, November, 1998)

News report III: The Ministry of Commerce announced in the Import Policy for 1997-2002 that the requirement for radiation testing of all food items imports from SAARC countries will be withdrawn. (The Daily Star, 27 November, 1998)

News report IV: In case of sweets, 99 samples out of every hundred sweets are found adulterated while edible oil and honey come next with 65 per cent samples adulterated. (The Daily Star, 20 August, 1997)

These four reports illustrate that consumer’s rights are not being protected. Traders, lawmakers and monitoring agencies for some illicit (!) reasons are ignoring the interest of common people. It however, unearths some assumptions, which drive these people to resort to adulteration in food.

i. Endless Profit: Committing Silent Killing

Motive for making endless profit taking advantage of liberal economy is pushing the traders to adulterate food. They are not thinking for a moment that if they impure one food item, the others may also do the same thing in the case of other items. As a result they not only put the lives of consumers in danger, but also become the victims of their own wrong-doing. It ultimately leads to a war of silent killing about which no one is concerned. Endless profit, which is nothing but motive for making money actually gives birth to latter factors described here.

ii. Protecting vested Class Interest: Common Mass Ignored

Article 15 of the Constitution guarantees:

It shall be a fundamental responsibility of the state … a steady improvement in the material and cultural standard of living of the people, with a view to securing its citizens-

a. The provision of basic necessities of life including food…

But it is seen that persons as well as state as a whole, endowed with the responsibilities to protect such rights are not doing enough for ordinary people. Rather a system is growing in which vested interest of certain group is preserved. For example, on 22 November 1998, six patients died after receiving expired saline in the Rangpur Medical College and Hospital. The investigation committee led by Professor Abdus Sobhan concluded that the patients had died from fatal conditions rather than as a consequence of receiving time barred saline. Moreover, few days back, in a ‘paracetamol disaster’ a number of innocent children were killed. But government did not bother at all to make it public, what punishment the responsible pharmaceutical companies had received for using illegal ingredient in paracetamol. I have given here the example of drug, as it is not less essential than food. Drug is itself a temporary food for an ailing person.

iii. Inordinate Influence of Business Firms: Manoeuvring Government Policies

It is increasingly recognised that big business firms through their strong influence can manipulate government policies in their own favour, even sometimes by subverting democratic policies. Recently published report in the daily Ittefaq shows that Health Ministry has formed a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Drug Import violating Drug Ordinance, 1982. According to Drug Ordinance any decision relating to import from abroad can be taken by the Drug Administration Parliamentary Standing Committee which includes several drug importers. One of the importers, alleged to be the member of the committee, has succeeded in getting approval of importing 6 million Benjathene Injections while locally produced injections are capable of meeting market demands.

iv. Rampant Spread of Corruption: Absence of Intervening Force

Corruption in every sphere of public life has become a central problem. Transparency International comments, 'It has even been quite common to hear it being suggested that the taking of bribes by government officials in these countries (third world countries) with equanimity to the extent that it at least an understanding of how market forces operate in a liberal economic environment'.

Profit or money-making tendencies are further complemented by the weak official commitment to observance or enforcement resulting into legitimisation of adulterated food in markets.

These factors are accompanied also by lack of effective institutional mechanism:

BSTI and others: Toothless Quality Control Agencies

We have food department, Drug administration, Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institute (BSTI) which have so far been proved ineffective in combating food adulteration. BSTI is responsible for only quality checks. But it does not monitor crime like adultery. Nor does it have the authority to start legal proceedings or seize adulterated food items. It makes us understand that our country lacks effective mechanism to ensure pure food or drug to the consumers regardless of existing laws.

Role of Non Government Organisation: Yet to Live up to the Expectation

Apart from government and traders non-government organisations role in safeguarding ordinary people's genuine interest is not above criticism. There is lack of transparency regarding their much-publicised people-oriented activities. Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB) and other business bodies last year proposed a draft of Consumer Protection Bill. But it is yet to scrutinised by the Commerce Ministry before being forwarded for approval. It is also not clear what and to what extent interests of the consumers were upheld in the proposed draft. It is further complicated by the fact that people are not well aware of such draft. So there remains a scope of the draft proposal being manipulated by a handful of persons.

No Room for Ordinary People: Need for Ombudsman

It appears now that we have started to carry a seed of destruction-corruption by which only the ordinary people suffer. Food, which is essential for every citizen’s life is not free from putting the same in risk, inviting early death. Lack of commitment to people, ideological bankruptcy results into converting food or items like drug into money-generating machine through unfair means.

The existing ambience where there is no existence of any mainstream commentator or political party that can contemplate the possibility of any change in the regulatory framework to put real pressure on traders or public officials to take account of the public interest into account makes the situation more critical. Truly the principle of democratic accountability is being undermined by the ‘commercial confidentiality’ which leads to subordination of all other interests to that of corporate one. As a result credibility crisis appears in public life.

The system has lost its appeal to common people to some extent. We now therefore need to create a new institute, which can rise above mere class or party interest in administering justice and establishing rule of law. Yes I suggest for establishing the office of Ombudsman under Article 77 of the Constitution immediately. At the same time some more works need to be completed at administrative and legal levels to combat food or drug related crime. In this context the following are suggested:

1. Establishment of a separate ‘Food Court’ for consumers to smoothen the access to justice, regarding food or drug related crimes.
2. Forming separate law enforcing agencies to deal exclusively with food and drug monitoring.
3. Treatment of food and drug with equal importance and merging food and drug departments into one administrative unit under which new law enforcing agencies would remain.
4. Imposition of severe punishment for crimes relating to food and drug crimes
5. BSTI and other organisations alike must be well equipped with a right of monitoring.
6. Formation of consumers rights associations.

The author is doing his M.Phil. at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.