Modi should check FSSAI’s anti-business move

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen on enhancing the ease of doing business in India, but the bureaucracy is yet to imbibe this idea. Various organs of the government continue to make the life of entrepreneurs and businesspeople miserable. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s (FSSAI’s) new-found enthusiasm to ensure that restaurants declare the calorific and nutritive value of the food they serve is an instance of unwarranted official intervention in a growing sector.

Hindustan Times (February 10) quoted Pawan Kumar Agarwal, chief executive officer of FSSAI, saying, “Declaring details of calorie intake and nutrition information ensures that consumers are informed. These things are already part of labelling norms for packaged food.” Thankfully, he is not making this a binding requirement: “But Agarwal doesn’t want to make this mandatory—at least, not yet.”

The operative part of the sentence is “not yet,” which keeps the field open for the FSSAI’s intervention. This is what government and its agencies itch for; the itch is institutional.

Make no mistake about it; bureaucrats’ (ostensible) concern for the public is just a pretext to make their obnoxious presence felt. Had they been so concerned for the health of people, they would have eradicated food adulteration, synthetic milk, etc.—the real threats to public health. But, typically, officials would not address the real issues; they would like to carry out a phone campaign, and they are likely to get a lot of support from sundry activists, who are generally anti-business zealots.

The FSSAI chief has already commenced the jihad against the food business, though right now it is low-key. “To start with, let the big ones come forward and do this voluntarily,” he said.

But some restaurateurs are already doing it. “Making it voluntary may make sense. But if it is mandatory, compliance may be an issue. Declaration of nutrition information and calorie details will be a huge task. Even in the western countries, it is not a practice,” National Restaurants Association of India (NRAI) president Riyaaz Amlani was quoted as saying.

Compliance will not only be an issue but also a cost. Top fine-dining restaurants may be able to manage—wasting considerable time, energy, and money—the calorific and nutritive information about the food they serve, but it will be extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, for roadside dhabas and smaller eating joints to comply with the intended stipulation. When compliance is difficult, the proclivity to bypass it becomes stronger which, in turn, becomes a ground for the foot soldiers of the department concerned to fleece small businesses. Another vista opens up for the inspector raj.

The FSSAI seems to be going beyond its mandate by insisting on calorific and nutritive value. “The mandate assigned to the Food Authority is (i) laying down science-based standards for articles of food (ii) to regulate manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import of food (iii) to facilitate food safety,” this is what the authority’s website says. While the FSSAI has clearly failed in its essential duties pertaining to food standards—as evident from myriad media reports—it wants to arrogate for itself duties not mentioned in its charter.

As former US president Ronald Reagan said, “The government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” It’s truer in India than in the US where you get a Reagan after Jimmy Carter and a Donald Trump after Barack Obama.

Reagan’s second phrase applies to India’s food services sector, which is estimated to grow from a little over Rs 30,000 crore in 2016 to Rs 49,800 crore by 2021. Surely a matter of concern for mandarins! They ought to regulate it! Even if regulation translates into strangulation!

It is time Modi and his key functionaries restrained bureaucratic hyper-activism, as exemplified by the FSSAI.