What is one to make of the Maharashtra government’s decision to challenge the Bombay High Court order lifting the ban on the sale of Maggi Noodles? Coming as it does, days after Maggi cleared all tests prescribed by the court, this move looks small-minded to the core.
A quick timeline: In June, the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) banned Maggi after tests in some laboratories had shown lead levels to be above permissible limits. Nestle India, which manufactures Maggi, challenged the ban in the Bombay High Court. In August, the court lifted the ban but asked Nestle to get samples tested from specified laboratories to ensure they conformed to safety standards. Nestle did that and the three laboratories cleared the samples. Three days after this news broke, the Maharashtra food and civil supplies minister announced the decision to challenge the lifting of the ban.
It looks like it is not just communal hotheads in his party that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to worry about. It is also adventurist chief ministers (from his party and hand-picked by him), whose ham-fisted actions will hurt his plan to pitch India as an easy place to do business and woo investments.
It is no one’s case that unsafe food items be allowed to be sold. Food safety is a non-negotiable issue. There can be endless debate on the standards and the mechanism to enforce them, but once standards have been adopted, they have to be adhered to.
But the ban on Maggi was struck down by a court, which observed that “principles of natural justice have not been followed in announcing the ban” (emphasis added). So it questioned the process by which the ban was imposed. Then it ordered fresh tests on the same standards, which Maggi cleared. So there is no dilution in the food safety standards.
What message does it send out about the business environment of a country if a state government is seen to be hounding a company which has been cleared by a court of law?
But then Modi has not been able to rein in loose cannons in his own cabinet. Two days before the Bombay High Court verdict was expected – the date was known – the central government’s own consumer affairs department (headed by alliance partner Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party) rushed to the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) with a suit claiming Rs 640 crore as damages from Nestle India.
When this unseemly hurry was pointed out, the department’s response was that the case in the Bombay High Court related to safety standards, while it was seeking damages for misleading advertisement and unfair trade practices.
No Prime Minister can meddle with administrative actions of his own ministers or of state chief ministers. Doing so when one company is in a pickle will immediately set off charges of cronyism and corruption. But somewhere Modi has failed to get the message about a business-friendly environment across to everyone in the government.
Nothing can be done about the case already before the NCRDC. But some sense needs to be knocked into the Maharashtra government about the larger implications of its actions. Because this is not about Maggi and Nestle India alone; it is about sending out a message about India’s business environment.
Updated Date: Oct 21, 2015 17:05 PM