Modi’s Maggie Moment
Many criticize the safety standards of Maggie for its utter disregard for the safety of Indians. How often do we look at the standards when we enter a local restaurant or roadside joint?
The Maggie row has opened a Pandora’s Box. At least for now, hygiene is news. Pillorying the safety standards of Nestle and other food chains is fashionable and politically correct. Healthy diet comes with a premium and the problem is not only with the ready-to-eat food but also with various food ingredients available in the market. Yes, there are serious issues; breach of established standards and use of hazardous materials, toxic chemical and pesticide. Some are added for taste and others for economic considerations. Growing obesity, especially among the youth, is often attributed to their addiction to high-cholesterol and fattening fast food. Even those who grew up on Maggie were forced to jump the ship. Anyone raising a contrary view becomes an apologist for exploitation and of corporate culture.
Can we pose a simple question: how safe are the food cooked in millions of homes in this country? How hygienic are our kitchens? Whether one likes or not, cleanliness is not part of our social norms or of education. Many criticise the safety standards of Maggie for its utter disregard for the safety of Indians. How often we look at the standards when we enter a local restaurant or roadside joint? Some will venerate their student days and post-midnight discussions in famous dhabas in the capital. Do they remember what all they found in their plates of chow mein or fried rice? Times change, things you find also change but the state of hygiene has not improved. As they say, if you go to the kitchen, you will never eat the food!
Gardiner Harris of the New York Times is not wrong when he described the sorry state of affairs. Like most cities in the country, it is not easy to live in New Delhi and some of its urban sprawls are truly ‘unliveable.’ However, his powerful personal story hurts our ego because he a foreigner, especially an American, who had the chutzpah to say the obvious. Pointing out western shanty towns and poor neighbourhoods is momentarily satisfying. But is there valour in taking refuge in jingoist nationalism? Message is always important than the messenger.
Seen in this wider context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign is a mission impossible. Naturally many made fun when he and his colleagues launched the Swachh Bharat campaign. Photo ops, publicity stunt, reinventing UPA policy, cleaning a clean road, they derided. Is there an alternative strategy? Did his critics organize a systemic campaign to take the littering public to task? Indeed, many both within and outside the BJP have expressed their reservations over his plan to get a ‘Clean India’ by 2019, Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. Some have problems with his priorities and action plans; and many have serious doubts over his unrealistic and impossible timeframe. The problem is not the methods, money or magnitude of the challenge. The real culprit is the Indian mindset.
Hinduism is partly to be blamed for this. For centuries, seeped in caste consciousness, the society has been obsessed with spiritual ‘purity’ and disregarded physical cleanliness. River Ganga manifests this irony. Hygiene will be the last word one would think when visiting Ganga. It is supposed to purify all the sins of the individual; yet the river is anything but pure and is toxic than holy. In many Hindu households ‘Ganga Jal’ is an integral part of the daily rituals but most of them would have never the river in their lifetime or known its impure character brought by human and material waste, residues and the rest.
Educational institutions have a major responsibility in this utter disregard for unclean India. Cleanliness is a culture and not a doctrine and has to be evolved internally, nurtured over time and recognized as a virtue. What is the hygienic condition of hostels and dhabas in India’s educational institutions? Various publically-funded buildings are vandalized in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘artistic freedom’. The ban on smoking in public places came into force on October 2, 2008 but is it effective in the educational institutions? Some of the hardened advocates of social responsibility and community consciousness are also the principal violators of smoking ban. You can’t fault them; most educational institutions do not have designated ‘smoking zones’ and hence it is impossible to enforce the ban.
Once again, Modi has to take his fight for cleanliness to the next stage: punish the littering party. This is easier said than done. When there is demand to take aged and polluting vehicles off the roads, protests erupt, lobbies are blamed and motives identified. The Maggie controversy reminded us that publicity is more important for the Indian industries than safety concerns. As happened when CNG was introduced in Delhi autos, there will be resistance, criticisms, lobbying and protests but Modi has no choice he it wants a healthy and modern India.
Individuals or institutions who contribute to pollution and unhygienic conditions will have to pay both for their actions and for waste disposal and recycling. No state funding should be available to any institution or agency in this country if it fails to enforce cleanliness as part of the work culture. This would include a stick enforcement of smoking ban in all educational institutions in this country; no one has the freedom to pollute and injure the health of others. Your freedom literally ends in my nose.
Despite the challenges, Modi will have to act. Recycling has to be an integral part of all industries, factories or other manufacturing units. Give them concessions if they work and punish them when they don’t. Separate collection bins for bottles, plastic materials and other recyclable materials is a common sight in many developed countries. Recycling is not only environmentally friendly it also makes good business sense. Let recycling be mandatory for all those who manufacture bottled beverages and impose punitive taxes for all non-energy efficient and polluting products.
Interestingly the Maggie controversy is a blessing for Modi and his swachh bharat campaign.
By P R Kumaraswamy