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In Its Zeal To Tackle Wastage, Will The Government Turn Food Vigilantes Next?

What you can eat, when you can eat it, and how much portion of it you can eat.

11/04/2017 4:38 PM IST | Updated 11/04/2017 5:17 PM IST
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First they told you what you could eat. Then they told you when you could eat it. Now they will tell you how much you can eat.

The Hindustan Times reports the NDA government is considering fixing portion sizes at star hotels and restaurants.

Like all government decisions, it's in a good cause. It's meant to curb food wastage.

"If a person can eat only two prawns, why should he or she be served six?" asked Ram Vilas Paswan, minister for consumer affairs, food and distribution. "If a person eats two idlis, why serve four!"

But Mr Paswan does not address the basic problem – what about the poor person who can eat six prawns but now is served two? Will he be food-shamed as a glutton for wanting those extra prawns? Are we entering a food service world where you get two idlis and if you want two more, then you need to pay extra?

Food wastage is not new. The latest attention being paid to it is happening because the Prime Minister has noticed it and expressed his 'mann ki baat' on it.

If a person can eat only two prawns, why should he or she be served six?

Modi termed it as an injustice to the poor. "Ignoring the issue of food wastage is anti-social and this is injustice to the poor. Wastage of food is unfortunate. I know of several youngsters who are using technology to prevent wastage of food," the prime minister said.

The prime minister has a point. Food wastage is way too commonplace. The figure cited most often is that the country wastes 67 million tonnes a year, enough to feed the state of Bihar. And the value of the food lost, about ₹92,000 crore is nearly two-thirds of what it costs to get subsidized rations to 600 million poor Indians covered by the National Food Security programme. But most of this is not being wasted at a restaurant. It's wasted because perishable goods do not have proper storage or are lost to pests.

But the restaurant wastage catches our eye because we do not know of the potatoes and onions that never come to market because they rotted, thanks to lack of cold storage. If I go on my own to a restaurant I am frequently confronted with way more food than one person can handle. Even the bowl of rice is enough for two people. Yet I see others next to me demolish that same bowl of rice all on their own.

We've seen the cow vigilantes in action. Is it going to be the turn of food vigilantes next?

But the larger issue is not just the portion size, it's that we as consumers are happy to waste food. Growing up, no matter how small the portion left over, my mother would save it. Our refrigerator was full of little bowls and containers with single servings, sometimes half servings of dals and curries, maybe a piece of chicken. My generation is more loath to save that little. We don't think twice of tossing it rather than go through the hassle of finding another little Tupperware for it and taking up precious shelf space in the refrigerator. This is a mindset that has shifted in India from its more parsimonious thrifty socialist days. We are, as a culture, now ok with waste because we regard wastage as a marker of affluence. We can afford to waste now because for us there's plenty more where it came from. Do not waste rice was the constant admonition of my childhood. Wasting food does not have that same stigma anymore. That slightly squishy tomato is just tossed. My mother would have carefully sliced out the extra squishy part and used the rest. Now we find such thrift almost comical.

Ignoring the issue of food wastage is anti-social and this is injustice to the poor.

I have watched family outings at buffet restaurants where little children, intoxicated by all the food on display, pile their plates high. There's no way they can finish it. Their eyes are way bigger than their stomach. The parents do not object. They often encourage the child to "leave it". It's a buffet after all, all paid for anyway. When a large party vacates a table at one of those all-you-can-eat places, they leave enough food strewn on their plates to feed a small family. Restaurants have struggled to deal with this in many ways. Some impose a fine on unfinished plates of food. Others sell the food by weight, so the food wasted is money wasted. But most treat the customer as king and if a king cannot waste, then what kind of king is he anyway?

The problem that Modi and Paswan have identified is very real indeed. But is the issue really with the restaurant serving us too much food or with us, as consumers, who have come to expect excess as our damn birthright?

The country wastes 67 million tonnes a year, enough to feed the state of Bihar.

The government should tackle food wastage. But it should first tackle it where it's wasted the most – in storage facilities or lack thereof, in the methods used to handle it and bring it to market, in the pre- and post-harvest waste. Instead of playing food police in restaurants it should be more concerned that India is ahead of China in this regard though the two countries are the biggest culprits.

This proposal however, complete with plans to send questionnaires to restaurant sounds less like a state that wants to curb food wastage and more like one that takes its role as a nanny state way too seriously.

On the upside however, perhaps given how much attention the government is paying to what Indians get to eat and drink and now how much, we might end up with a leaner and meaner India soon. But here's the worry. We've seen the cow vigilantes in action. Is it going to be the turn of food vigilantes next?

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