Modi against food wastage

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here could be an element of politics in the move but fear of politics should not derail a measure that has positive social consequences.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi says it, can ministers be left behind? From the way things have panned out, the answer is a clear NO. That it was not a BJP minister but an alliance partner who did it is another matter. Prime Minister Modi, in his radio address, had spoken about food wastage. Last month in Mann ki Baat he had said: “It is unfortunate to waste food. It is an injustice to the poor. If we stop this wastage, it can immensely benefit the poor.” Modi went on to term food wastage a crime against society and said awareness on the issue is a must. Mann ki Baat is a radio programme that Prime Minister Modi hosts: effectively using it as a tool to communicate with the people of India. The programme is broadcast on radio and government owned television channels.

The first Mann Ki Baat programme was broadcast in October 2014 and the second a month later. Since then it is a regular feature of the PM speaking his mind to the people. The then President of the United States of America Barack Obama was part of one edition during his India visit in 2015. That ministers take a cue from PM Modi’s radio talk on his thought process is a given but it is not always that they jump on every issue he flags. Union Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan did and raked a controversy.

Paswan is not a BJP minister. His Lok Janshakti Party is an alliance partner and hence Paswan is a minister in Modi-led BJP government. Like Modi, Paswan is not affluent. His beginnings are humble and his background unprivileged. He understands poverty and knows hunger. Therefore food wastage could, understandably, be an issue close to his heart. He is an Indian who belongs to rural India and knows the pain of the have-nots. Therefore while taking up Modi’s suggestion of saving food he has perhaps addressed the agony of the deprived while cautioning the rich who mindlessly splurge without any thought to those who watch from the sidelines. Ram Vilas Paswan has now asked for the amount of food served at restaurants to be fixed. The fixed portion scheme as it is informally dubbed is based on a premise that huge amounts of food is wasted at restaurants and this is a fit case for standardization of how much should be served. Unclear whether there will be a law on fixed portions or not, the Ministry as a first step will involve representatives from the food and hotel industry to take forward this initiative.

Paswan had indicated that uniformity will be through the consensus route and the government does not wish to control anything. But it would want restaurants to specify portion size of servings and make known how many pieces of chicken, or chapatti or a certain food item one portion will have. Paswan’s logic is that if a person can eat only two prawns, why should he or she be served six? If a person eats two idlis, why serve four? Fixing portions, he feels, would reduce, if not end, wastage of food given that substantial amounts ordered remain unconsumed and are, subsequently, trashed. Once instructions are issued to hotels, they would be bound to follow and ensure that wastage is minimized. There is however a rider about the instructions applicable to “standard hotels” and not dhabas or street eatries. Paswan justified their exclusion on grounds that dhabas usually serve thalis. This is a weak defence because it is not always that food served in thalis is not wasted. Neither does it ensure optimum consumption. Even here, as in the portion system wastage remains an issue.

In fact once served in a thali, food cannot be re-consumed because it is eaten out of the same plate. In a portion system, the portion is served in a dish and consumed in individual plates and can be consumed instead of being trashed. That the restaurants choose not to is another matter. Therefore, Paswan’s logic of a thali versus a plate is a bit skewed. And it is here where the politics of the poor comes in. While fixed portions and food wastage is an issue that would resonate with the poor and the deprived, targeting dhaba owners would be counterproductive. Most dhabas, it is well known, are owned by the rural and lower middle classes: a vote bank that no politician would dare upset.

Therefore, Paswan has tread with utmost caution. He has left out dhaba wallas and struck the affluent: restaurant and hotel owners. To say that the latter’s method of serving means food wastage and thalis do not, is turning the argument over its head. There are several restaurants and hotels who recycle the edibles and distribute the perishables among charities. Of course critics are crying hoarse over the government’s latest move trashing it as a bid to “control” India’s food intake. The common refrain is that now the government wants to control how much one should eat, what one should eat and when one should eat. On the issue of control, the BJP is on a sticky wicket. Even if the measure is in national good, the BJP government’s intention come across as being suspect.

There are good reasons because BJP’s track record is not entirely impressive given its past attempts to muzzle free speech and kill dissent. Yet giving the devil its due, food wastage is a reality in India and therefore to ignore it, is doing disservice to the poor: hundreds and thousands who go hungry day after day. If figures are anything to go by, India wastes about 67 million tonnes of food items annually: enough to feed an Indian state like Bihar for one full year.

The issue is not about policing the chicken nugget portion or prawns or idlis on a person’s plate but looking at wastage as a whole. It is also about supply chain and storage facilities. It is about improper handling and so on and so forth. One ofcourse does not cancel the other. The government’s concern about food wastage is genuine and cannot be dismissed with a whiff. It needs introspection and action and the government taking the first step, however small, needs to be applauded.

There could be an element of politics in the move but fear of politics should not derail a measure that has positive social consequences. Drowning it in the din of shallow and partisan politics could be politically viable but nationally it would be a disservice. Therefore, looking at every decision of the government within the prism of politics, be it of food or the poor, would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.