Government action, public outcry, and media outrage against Nestle’s Maggi noodles—with celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit being collateral damage—are symptomatic of ritualism and scapegoating. Ritualism, because as a nation we are convinced that by saying nasty things about and taking action against Nestle, we will be able to purify our food chain. And scapegoating, because by shifting all blame to the multinational corporation, the quintessential big, bad MNC, we will be free of all culpability. Unfortunately, such voodoo practices will not help us.
This is not to suggest that Nestle has not erred; from all available evidence, MNC seems to have been extremely careless in the manufacture of noodles which are consumed by millions of people. The company should be penalized if it has violated any laws. However, three points need to be made here.
First, unhealthy and contaminated food, adulteration, etc, are old and dangerous problems that are seldom discussed in public domain; proper action to check them is non-existent. Consider the case of ‘synthetic milk.’ It needs to be mentioned that the production and sale of synthetic milk is nothing but mass murder; yet, it has been spreading in the country, especially in north India, since the early 1990s. It has been reported by the media in considerable detail—yet, few (least of all those in the government) are bothered.
So, a public interest litigation (PIL) had to be filed to make our netas and babus move. In response to the PIL filed by a group of citizens in 2012, led by an Uttarakhand-based pontiff, the Supreme Court issued notices to the Centre and Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Haryana governments. In February 2012, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) had stated that at the national level “68.4 per cent of the samples were not found to be conforming to the FSS [Food Safety Standards] Regulations.” Moreover, “14 per cent of the samples were found to be non-conforming because of the presence of traces of detergent.”
Apart from ball-by-ball commentary, the FSSAI did little. Unsurprisingly, it was reprimanded by the Supreme Court for categorizing milk adulteration as an offence that attracts a minor penalty of six months’ imprisonment under the Food Safety Act 2006. The apex court sought amendments to the Act so that the culprits could be thrown behind bars for life for lacing milk with “white paint, caustic soda, detergents, shampoo, urea, starch and blotting paper.” The Supreme Court wondered whether the government was waiting cyanide to be used as an adulterant! Neither government nor the media considered mass murder by way of synthetic milk to be a big issue.
This brings us to the second point: an issue becomes big only when something big or glamorous is involved—MNCs, film stars. Some unknown milk middlemen in some nondescript town like Bulandshahr in UP or Kurukshetra in Haryana, howsoever vile acts he may be involved in, is not sexy enough to be discussed by Arnab Goswami; there has to be a Nestle, an Amitabh Bachchan, a Madhuri Dixit to arouse the interest of the popes and cardinals of morality.
A few years ago, Pepsi and Coke were demonized for serving soft drinks contaminated with pesticides; the uproar was so loud that it appeared that but for the two MNCs everything Indians drank was pure. The entire food chain has been contaminated because of adulteration, substandard edibles, polluted groundwater, indiscriminate use of pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, antibiotics in poultries and dairies, and so on. But the authorities, activists, and journalists wake up, like Rip van Winkle, only when MNCs are involved.
The third point that needs to be emphasized is the abdication of duty by the government in matters related to food safety and public health. Film stars are supposed to check the quality of products they endorse; the FSSAI is not. Demands are made for action against Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit, but not against the officials who have allowed the sale of allegedly substandard noodles and a myriad other products. This is not much different from the attitude of the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi, which urges citizens to provide video clips of the officials seeking bribes. The citizen is supposed to root out corruption; the political party that came to power in Delhi on the promise to do that refuses to act against Sheila Dikshit on grounds of lack of evidence (this despite calling her regime totally corrupt two years ago).
In the ultimate analysis, the Maggi row is an occurrence of phony catharsis of the nation. An MNC is being used as a whipping boy as well as a scapegoat. Its sales as well as share price has nosedived in the last few days. If the origin of the controversy lies in corporate warfare, Nestle’s rivals would surely be a pleased lot. After a few days, however, everything will be forgotten, and we will continue to consume unsafe food as we have been doing for ages.