- By Khin Maung Myint
Early every morning, I take a walk through a street, where a makeshift market is located, on my way to Kandawgyi Lake for routine workouts. Though I called it makeshift, it’s almost a permanent one, which had been operating for decades, except for the fact that it is not systematically built for that purpose. Thus it lacked all the prerequisites of a clean and hygienic market place. Goods sold there range from vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry, meat, clothing and a variety of household necessities. Overall, it is what would be called a fresh market in other countries. The market is open daily from dawn to midday.
The times I used to pass through that place are just before dawn, while the vendors are just arriving by various means of transportations – trishaw, bicycle carrier, taxi and pickup truck, bringing their goods from the wholesale markets. They have to get to those wholesale markets around 2 or 3am to purchase what they will retail off to their customers at this street market.
The scenes I am about to describe are the ways their goods are handled. Some bring the processed chickens and ducks heaped on the seat of a trishaw without any sort of container or packaging. The trishawmen are always in a hurry to return to the bus stops to bring in another load of goods, so they are not patient to wait until the vendors could unload them. Thus they will dump the goods on the roadside or even in the middle of the road. Some commodities come by pickup trucks—vegetables, fish, poultry and meat, all heaped on the floorboards where people tread on them with their dirty footwear. Some come by taxies, stuffed inside the trunk and on the floorboards leaving no place for the passengers or the owners of the goods to set their feet down, except on the bundles of foodstuffs.
People who are observant and also conscious of hygiene will agree with what I am going to write. Most of our roads and streets inside the residential areas are filthy, especially during the rainy season. They are almost always covered with sludges, plastic and other wastes, caused by frequent floods. Carcases of dead rodents and sometimes even cats and dogs, run over by cars during the night, can be found. These animals met their deaths while out on the streets, scavenging for scraps of foods that are recklessly strewn in the streets due to lack of proper garbage collection system and lack of discipline on the part of some people. Dog poohs are regular sights everywhere.
In such circumstances, it is not rare to see goods dumped indiscriminately, as described above, and lying side by side with dead rodents and dog poohs or in a pool of sludge. Fish scales and tendrils of all sorts are just discarded in the streets when the shops close for the day, attracting vermin. It’s not an exaggeration, but a reality that has been going on in the said street market, and may be in other such places, too. Worst still, is the fact that some fish, poultry and meat vendors leave their chopping blocks by the roadside for scavengers to feast on the scraps of meat and blood clinging on them, during the nights.
I can go on describing such unhealthy, unhygienic and undisciplined behaviours that can cause adverse health effects on the consumers, but I deemed I have written enough for the readers to visualize the horrible conditions. I am not being pessimistic by writing thus, but I was once criticized by a young chief editor of a certain daily newspaper as being too critical and demeaning to our own people, and as that can lead foreigners who happened to read it to look down on us. I want to say that I disagree with him. If there is no one like me to point out the shortcomings like these, authorities may not know and there wouldn’t be any improvement, whatsoever.
Not to waste time and space by writing about the many good examples, let me mention what Thailand, our closest neighbour, is doing. Undeniably, there are street markets in Thailand, of course. However, theirs’ are nothing comparable to the ones in our country. Unlike in our country, the vendors are allowed to place tables or racks to display their commodities only just a few minutes before the opening time. At closing time, all these materials and trashes would nowhere to be seen. The vendors must clear their spaces. Those places will be washed down and brushed with mobile equipment during the nights by workers from departments concerned.
Then, there are environmental inspectors, mostly belonging to a third party or being on a contract, who go on inspections to check the health and hygiene conditions. Even a campsite for a road construction project, where I used to stay on my frequent visits, is inspected every month by a team of such inspectors. They check the garbage bins, drainages, sewage systems, kitchens and the cleanliness of the whole camp. Thus, even if a construction campsite is inspected thoroughly, imagine what the markets and food vendors would be subjected to.
Let’s face the fact that our street food vendors and even some restaurants will not pass such inspections. I had seen dogs and rodents on top of dining tables at street food stalls during the nights. Most are covered with scabies. When I once told that to a fried rice vendor, she replied that because she knew of such going-ons, she changed the old newspapers and journal sheets she uses as table covers every day, as though her actions are enough to prevent the germs carried by those animals from entering the food she served. Some may not believe if I write that I had seen a tiny mice sneaking in and out from behind the readymade snacks displayed at a convenient store that opens 24/7. That shows how ignorant of hygiene and health risks our people are, indicating that they need education in such matters.
In my opinion ’the carrot and stick’ policy should be applied. In Bangkok and other provincial towns in Thailand, the restaurants and other eateries, including street food stalls, displayed emblems with words that read, ‘CLEAN FOOD, GOOD TASTE’ in English. Not every shop can display them all the time, but only those that are certified after thorough periodical inspections, and once they don’t meet the set norms, the emblems have to be withdrawn until they improve again. All food vendors, be it in the street or restaurants, must compulsorily wear aprons and chef’s head gears at all times to prevent hairs falling into the foods they cook and serve. It is a very effective practice for the consumers and the vendors alike, because the consumers can easily choose where they should eat without health hazards, or at least with less risks, and at the same time such practices are good for the businesses of the vendors.
Thus, instead of aiming to catch up with or to surpass this or that country, we should set goals that are attainable and suitable for us and endeavour to make our street markets, street food stalls and their environments more hygienic. A clean environment could be very beneficial to public health. We should not tolerate unhealthy and unhygienic practices in the food sector.