Two Acts, one mandi, zero food safety

Topics APMC | e-mandi | Food safety

The Union Cabinet has approved an Ordinance to end monopolies of the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs). This will enable farmers to sell their produce “wherever” and to “whoever” in the country. However, this choice may not be exercised immediately. At least in the foreseeable future, small farmers will load their F&V produce in tempos and trudge across to the APMCs at the crack of dawn. The same players will be present; traders, arthiyas, vegetable vendors, food processors. Sure, in Unlock 1.0, they might be masked, gloved and sanitised. However, the important query here is: Will the market be sanitised?

The F&V “market” is more than just the players. The market is an entire ecosystem — architecture amenable for display and sale of goods, separate zones for selling F&V, entry and exit points for smooth vehicular movement, parking spaces, godowns and cold storages, restrooms, waste management facilities and essential utilities like power and drainage. The World Health Organization maintains that F&V markets are “essential settings for maintaining the health and nutritional status of urban populations, especially in developing countries”. Food markets are also super-spreaders — places from where foodborne diseases may spread quickly to the populace. In developing economies, 70 per cent of diarrhoeal infections amongst children are foodborne. Thirty three per cent of the illnesses in developed economies are due to foodborne diseases. Given these facts and the fact that the Covid pandemic has its origin in wet markets, looking away from the sad reality of Indian APMCs is to deny Indians a chance of rebounding quickly from the pandemic.

Why are Indian mandis filthy? Interestingly, this is due to two separate legislations that share an intersection, but not an interaction, with each other. These two legislations are the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA), 2006, and the APMC Act.  

The FSSA sets scientific standards for food safety and creates a regulatory framework for monitoring the “manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import of food”. The Act addresses “food” at the point wherein it changes ownership from the farmer to the trader. The APMC mandi is the first stop wherein agriculture products become “food”. The APMC itself is an operator in “food business”. 

However, the filthy APMCs are not really on the radar of the FSSA. Reasons? FSSA traditionally focusses more on safety of manufactured food “products”. Processes are defined, sampling is easy. That the heads of most food manufacturing concerns are not political leaders must be helping the cause substantially. Further, food inspectors are hard to come by. Staff shortage is compounded by the multiple tasks that have to be completed by the inspectors, from sampling to attending court hearings. With the given staff, it is difficult to cover even the manufactured food products within a given area. Inspections of the APMCs, with sale of loose F&V and controlled by politically powerful lobbies, may not be a palatable option for the FSSA authorities.

The APMCs thus are huge food operators that take licence under FSSA and still flout most of the safety norms given thereunder. Do they then adhere to the food safety norms given under the APMC Act? Surprise, surprise! There are no food safety norms given under the APMC Act! The APMC Act is about regulation of trade practices and establishment of markets. So, the Act is simply not oriented towards safety in food markets at all. The word “safety” occurs only once in the text of the Maharashtra APMC (Development and Regulation) Act, 1963. Under Chapter V, Rule 94, the Act states that the Market Committee shall, “so far as the funds as its disposal permit, provide for the health, convenience and safety of the persons using the market”. Now, the APMC mandi at Gultekdi, Pune, recorded a surplus of Rs 23 crore in FY18 and Rs 21 crore in FY19. Funds seem to be permitting; the will needs to be created.

Thus, the APMC Act does not cover food safety standards within mandi, and zero food safety.

Where do we go from here? There is only one place to go to, and that is towards healthy food markets. Here are a few pointers on the policy space. State governments need to recognise that safety does not occur as an accident. Every state should create a “healthy markets policy”; the state marketing boards can be the nodal agency for this purpose. Policy creation should be through a consultative process involving diverse stakeholders like consumers, farmers, traders, transporters, staff of marketing board, FSSAI and urban planners. Awareness workshops on the guidelines should be conducted for the APMC operators. APMCs should nominate professional managers as safety managers responsible for adherence to healthy market guidelines in the mandi. The marketing board should appoint an independent agency for monitoring the adherence to the healthy markets policy at a pre-decided frequency.

An evaluation of the impact of safe markets too should be undertaken over a period of time. Penalty clauses under FSSA should apply fully to APMCs found to be in divergence from the set targets. The Modi government is in a mood to carry out agriculture reforms. Why leave out a reform that is so pertinent for agriculture, nutrition, health, urban planning and pandemic control? 

Phadke is a consultant economist; Karandikar is an agri-business expert

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