Fish being dried illegally with formalin in Odisha, govt promises action

Those drying fish illegally say they do it to cut costs; govt planning to provide chemical-free methods to dry fish

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Tuesday 12 February 2019
An illegal dry fish manufacturing unit in Paradip. Credit: Ashis Senapati An illegal dry fish manufacturing unit in Paradip. Credit: Ashis Senapati

With many in Odisha's dried-fish industry continuing to use formalin despite being warned, the Naveen Patnaik government is planning to take measures including punishments, awareness and introduction of new hygenic methods. 

“We have warned dry fish makers not to use the chemical,” Pratap Rout, the joint director of the department of marine fisheries told Down To Earth.

“We organise awareness meetings among them about the dangers posed by formalin. The fisheries department has also placed banners and posters in harbours and jetties to warn fishermen against using any chemical to dry and preserve fish. We have closed around 35 unhygienic dry fish units in the state recently as the makers were using banned toxic chemical substances for preparing and preserving the dry fish,” added Rout.

But why is formalin so controversial? And why is it being used in Odisha? “Formalin is a cancer-causing agent. Its use in the long run can cause serious ailments. It causes diarrhoea and other problems. Though the government has banned the use of formalin to prepare dry fish, many dry fish makers use it in Odisha as formalin or formaldehyde minimises the activity of oxygen which causes rotting,” said Sumanta Biswal, the president of All Odisha Fish Producers Association.

Two years ago, the department of marine fisheries had issued a circular to the district fisheries officers to take strict action against offenders.

Still, the practice of using formalin to dry fish continues in Odisha. “The fishery officials are not taking action against the dry fish makers who use chemicals to dry and preserve fish,” said Narayan Haldar, secretary of Odisha Masyajibi Forum.

Dry fish makers who don’t use chemicals are afraid the illegal activities of some of their counterparts could hurt them too. Around 15,000 families have been eking out their livelihoods by making and selling dry fish in Ganjam, Puri, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur and Balasore districts. Paradip in Jagatsinghpur district and Huma in Ganjam district are two main centres of dry fish business in the state.

“Dry fish units have been in existence for more than 50 years in many coastal pockets of Odisha,” says dry fish unit owner Arjun Mandal from the port of Paradip. “We never use any chemicals to dry the fish. The fisheries department should take action against the dry fish makers who use chemicals,” says Mandal.

Ask those who carry out the illegal activity as to why they do it, and they have an answer. “Costs associated with the natural process of drying fish have increased. Dried fish is now in great demand in Odisha and other states. It is now difficult for us to engage more workers to dry the fish under the sun for which we use chemicals to dry and preserve the fish,” said a dry fish maker of Paradip on the condition of anonymity.

But given the fact that dry fish is a lucrative business — dry fish businessmen of the state generate revenues of around Rs 25 to 30 crores per annum, says Mandal — the state government is taking ever more measures to see to it that fish are dried sans chemicals.

In an initiative that aims to boost dry fish enterprises in Odisha, the department of fisheries, with the help of the state micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) department decided to start a dry fish project in Paradip in 2018 to prepare export quality dry fish with modern and hygienic methods by spending around Rs 10 crore.

“The proposed project will be established over five acres of land near the harbour at Paradip for processing and marketing dried fish,” says Rout. “We will provide solar dryers, fish-drying platforms, storage rooms and other essential infrastructure in this project which will help fishermen to prepare more dry fish in less time, maintaining high quality of the produce for processing and marketing dried fish. Senor fishery scientists will train them to dry fish using solar dryers and pack it in conformity with food safety standards.

“The project aims at optimum use of fish by making value-added products through innovative post-harvest management, bringing additional income for fisher folk. Seventy per cent of the project cost would be borne by the Centre, the state’s share would be 20 per cent and the beneficiaries would spend the rest 10 per cent,” added Rout.

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