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Waste Matters

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Waste Matters
In the case of the Paswan’s initiative, the flaw is also in assuming that restaurants offer more than the minimum. They do not. Photo: Groupon.sg

The government’s move to order restaurants to specify the portion size of meals to minimise wastage is not a bad idea provided mindsets change and laws are implemented properly

~By Bikram Vohra

Oliver Twist asked for more and got into trouble. Union Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan is asking for less and it is not going down very well. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in his suggesting that food not be wasted and making a move to order restaurants to standardise portions. There is also nothing original in this, nor is it groundbreaking. Restaurants are supposed to do just this. It is a universal measure to give you exactly the same portion for the same price.

As a public school-bred army brat, the idea of leaving food on a plate is abhorrent to me and I have had several occasions to comment on people who find it fashionable to leave food uneaten and are embarrassed to ask for doggie bags. You have to be of a particularly gross value system if you encourage wastage. There is no dignity in leaving food because of what the steward might think nor is there any grandeur in believing you can afford this self-indulgence.

Why do people leave food?  Because they have the money and they can afford it and are making that statement of intent. See, we are not common? Possibly. Also, because there is this misbegotten belief that their peer group will mock them if they make a move to take leftovers with them when they leave an eatery. By these two measures, over-ordering is also seen as a badge of culinary valour and evidence that you stand apart from the great unwashed.

Paradoxically, it is not as if only the rich are wanton with their wontons. The middle class also aspire to wastage and see it as a social distinction. Since we are, as a society, wedded to food and it being central to religion, culture, festivity, entertainment, hospitality and almost every act, including propitiating the gods, the element of wastage is par for this course.

Between Indian weddings and the spectrum of our festivals, the wastage needle spikes with clanging alarm. Throwing away as much as 60 percent of the cooked food for such functions is the norm. Fear of being criticised is the base for such nonsense and the middle class also takes out loans if it has to maintain the spectacle of discarded food. Not to do it is to be pilloried and ends up with a loss of face. With these little vignettes being proof that we have a totally wrong attitude to food and double the felony when we celebrate festivals, bribe or appease our pantheons with excess food, the minister has his plate full… and that is a delightfully apt double entendre.

Why do people leave food?  Because they have the money and they can afford it and are making that statement of intent. See, we are not common?

Paswan’s statement is good on intent but weak on execution. All these ideas kick off from a point of merit and then flag because they are not practical. If Yogi Adityanath wants to dispatch Romeo squads to protect women, he is on the right track. If the Supreme Court wishes to reduce drunken driving by sanitising 500 m on either side of highways to deter truckers, it means well. But the riders in the rain wreck things. Romeo squads sour into ugly moral police and make harassment their sword of honour. Minister in various states connive to con the Supreme Court by denotifying highways and making them city roads so as to bypass the legal bind.

A spectacle of wastage typical of Indian weddings
A spectacle of wastage typical of Indian weddings

All these exercises have a common factor. They underscore our mindset. If that does not change, what can legislation do? We see pride reflected in wasted food. We want to drink next to the highway and drive under the influence of liquor because it is macho to do so. Of course, it is wrong to hassle women but Indian men think it is their birthright. After all, she asks for it, look at the way she is dressed.

Unless mindsets change all these efforts are in vain. In the case of the Paswan initiative, the flaw is also in assuming that restaurants offer more than the minimum. They do not, ensuring their profit margins and limiting their portions. Again, as ambience adds to the bill, it is not possible to have the same portions across the grading star system. You cannot expect the same amount or same pricing or same quality across the catering spectrum.

And while it is a call to pay attention to wastage as a national problem, unless the individual is prepared to recreate his priorities and stop taking extra helpings from the common trough and leaving it on the private plate, this shameful practice will continue across the board. In-deed, the maximum wastage is in the passage from the main dish to the personal plate. It gets thrown away.

The other problem with the focus on hotels and restaurants only is the inability to enforce the rule if it was ever activated. What will we do… have food police? Will they have an on-the-spot checking system or patrol outlets and haul away people who have erred? Not to mock it because I do take wastage of food very seriously but will there be a punishment of sorts if an extra prawn plops into the plate? Truth be told, it still does not hit waste per se which occurs in the transfer to the personal share and that means the slice of bread stops with the individual.

Much of it can be controlled by starting at home. Look at your own waste bin. With refrigeration now no longer a luxury, wastage has been given a hike and expired foods are regularly discarded—cheese, butter, preserves, meats, processed foods, sweetmeats….

Why did you buy them if you were not going to eat the stuff?

There is one more sobering thought. According to a 2013 UN report, the disposal of 1.3 billion tons of uneaten food affects climate, adding to the carbon footprint with an additional 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases. Do we care? No, we don’t even think about it.

It is, therefore, heartening that a minister has, at least, brought up an issue in a nation where rats nibble away a billion dollars of grain from a pathetically grand total of $9 billion worth of wasted food annually.

This, people, is a nation where 47 percent of children are undernourished and more than the amount of wheat consumed in Australia is eaten by insects at home.

Scarier still is the prodigious 70 percent of fruit and vegetable output that does not go into our stomachs but is spoiled rotten by lack of refrigeration facilities and transportation.

In fact, almost half of all global food produced goes waste. Again, it is this aspirational angle that manifests itself. Ape the west where 115 kg of edible food is the per capita wastage.

Does all this make any sense? Why would 150 million Indians go hungry to bed while the waste bins spilleth over? Sorry, Oliver, you can’t have any more.