11.45pm (Friday): When a four-member team of food and drugs administration () officials reached Polem check post, they were surprised to see a fish-laden truck already camping outside the border, waiting for the on import of from other states to end at midnight.
Since July 18, when the state government was forced to ban import of fish after finding traces of cancer-causing chemical , Goans have had to settle for expensive fish, caught from its own waters. Not many could afford that, and at the stroke of midnight on Saturday when the 15-day ban ended, the rules of the age-old game had changed.
On other nights, trucks would simply zoom in with tonnes of fish. Now, they were made to wait: First for the ban to end, and then for the go-ahead from the FDA team.
“After the formalin controversy, we need to be extra careful. Can’t take any chances,” said food safety officer Rajaram Patil.
12.10am (Saturday): First time on an unusual night shift, Patil and the rest of the FDA team show no discomfort. With additional policemen summoned for duty at the border, they feel well-protected and go about their task diligently. The drill remains the same at the start: Stop a truck, ask the driver for documents and then pick up a sample, randomly.
Over smart drivers, and their helpers, pick up a sample of their choice, largely from the first available box. But FDA officials know this game, so one of their own jump on the truck and picks up a sample of his choice, much to the driver’s chagrin.
The first sample is tested. It’s a dodyaro (croaker) which is headed for the fish meal plant in Cuncolim, and five minutes later, the vehicle gets the all-clear.
Most vehicles that land just after midnight are headed for Cuncolim. They are all from neighbouring Karnataka.
12.55am: Another truck from Karnataka shows up. It’s an insulated refrigerated truck with 120 boxes—each weighing 25kg—of fish, all containing saudalo (butter fish), and is meant for consumption by you and me.
The driver, Ashpaque Beary, has no doubt this is the freshest fish that Goans will taste in the morning. He knows for sure. He’s seen the fish being caught and loaded in his truck at 4pm the previous day from Belekeri in Ankola, and except for a brief halt for dinner at his home in Honnavar, he’s given the fish company all along.
“This is fresh fish, sir,” he tells FDA officials, who insist on checking not just one but two samples using the spot testing kit procured from CIFT in Kochi.
Turns out, the driver wasn’t lying.
But in these times of uncertainty, everyone remains on their guard. Even the policemen want to know if the fish that he will relish for lunch is “formalin-free.”
“The fish that you get from Karnataka has no chemical (formalin). It’s fresh. The people from Andhra (Pradesh) are the ones who use chemical and bring it here, not we,” he said. A FDA official jokes that the government would now need to construct separate markets for fish from Goa, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
The fish-laden truck spends close to an hour at the check post. These procedures were alien to everyone, and it’s not until the driver is told by police about new checks, that he steps out and allows officials to inspect the fish. For the last 10 years that he is bringing in fish to Goa, he’s never faced such hassles.
1.45am: Finally, the tests are done, and Beary sets on his way. He has lot of ground to cover. His bosses are expecting him to reach the wholesale fish market at Margao at 2.30am but with just 45 minutes left on the clock, there’s no way he will make it. He tries speeding along the way, but stray cattle along the road stops him in his track.
3.10am: After more than an hour of driving, he needs a break. Beary been driving all night, and just before he can reach his destination, needs his cup of tea. He stops at his usual roadside stall at Sarzora, and once he’s had a gulp of tea, he is ready for the last lap of his journey which takes him 15 minutes.
3.25am: As Beary brings his truck into Margao market, the wholesalers are wondering what’s taken him so long. Only he knows. Life at the border will never quite be the same.
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