What is sought more than anything in these cases is the rush for newspapers to publish screaming headlines about how a certain section of society has been given its comeuppance.
The readership cheers, the politicians look smug and everyone feels vindicated—though maybe not the subject of the bombardment, who is left sat in the cold, eating piles of humble pakora.
The country then moves on, likely towards the next reactionary outburst. In the scheme of things, it should all be little more than a monsoon in a chai cup.
The news today that the Narendra Modi-led Indian government has filed a Rs6.4bn (US$99m) lawsuit against Nestlé in the wake of the supposed Maggi scandal at first looked just like one of these episodes.
There is the obvious political motivation: a nationalist government flexing its muscles, making sure the local division of the world’s biggest food company knows who is boss.
Perhaps Nestlé’s continued resistance to concur with the Indian food regulator, the FSSAI, that its Maggi noodles contained excessive amounts of lead, might have upset the Modi machine. You aren’t meant to disagree with NaMo.
Perhaps the FSSAI’s shoddy handling of the affair necessitated moves to reestablish the regulator’s authority. Let’s not forget, after all, that it wasn’t the FSSAI’s testing that first led to the affair; rather it was a local food safety unit in Uttar Pradesh that published the initial finding, subsequently followed by other states.
Quite rightly questions have been asked why the apex food safety authority, with all its resources and clout, wasn’t at the forefront of investigations.
The FSSAI has been viewed as a regulator in disarray this year. Short-staffing, unilateral pronouncements and the ad-hoc issuance of endless guideline have forced thousands of tonnes of imports to spoil at quaysides.
The regulator wasn’t even able to find a chairman between January and the end of July even though it had plenty of warning of when the previous incumbent would leave his office.
Just yesterday, we reported on how the food industry is fearing a return of the days of the “inspector raj” as a result of the FSSAI’s approach to regulation.
Taking Nestlé to court for so-called compensation for Indians who have eaten its supposedly dangerous noodles is an effective way to show this lame regulatory duck has teeth.
Yet, to complicate matters, Indian laboratories in Goa and Mysore recently cleared the noodles, but these findings were dismissed high-handedly by the FSSAI, saying there had been lapses in the tests.
The legal action has thrown up a number of questions that need answering. Having made the claim on behalf of consumers, how does the government, should it win the action, plan to compensate the millions of Indians who have eaten the noodles in question?
From a corporate point of view, how will the companies India is beseeching to invest in the food processing sector and beyond through increased foreign direct investment react to the state’s sudden appetite for litigation? So far, India has been doing a dreadful job in attracting foreign firms to its soil and then keeping them there.
And in a country where food standards regulations are often ignored with tragic consequences, will the authorities continue to pursue local corporate transgressors through the already overworked court system? This is unlikely.
In the wake of this ridiculous action, even Bollywood celebrities have found themselves drawn in, with some of the biggest names of screen reportedly being the subject of a complaint filed by a court in the state of Bihar for having endorsed Maggi—some of them in the distant past.
“Reading the news about me being sued for doing the Maggie [sic] commercial over 12 years ago ? 12 years ago ? How does that happen ?” tweeted Preity Zinta.
Beyond our initial reaction of incredulity at the news, we now fear that the authorities might actually be forced to follow through.
The news has spread across the world—to countries like the US, whose Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week gave Maggi noodles the green light after its own testing.
Accordingly, the world expects a transparent process and the courts—one branch of state that is largely impervious to corruption and reactionary pronouncements—are now in the spotlight.
The Bombay high court verdict on the case is expected soon. It has reserved its order, but has suggested that samples of Maggi noodles be re-tested. Nestlé has agreed to this, but the FSSAI has responded negatively.
Hopefully for Nestlé and the wider industry, the courts will see sense, as they so often do. India should not have taken such a half-baked action just to show a foreign multinational who is the boss—and done so with such a paucity of evidence on its side.
With any luck the authorities will also see sense, Nestlé will eat its humble pakoras and the affair will end with those on high feeling mighty ahead of the next reactionary outcry.