Father sues to ban junk food, soft drinks in India's schools

But court-ordered rules stuck with govt as diabetes cases soar

NEW DELHI • Mr Rahul Verma's son was born gravely ill with digestive problems, but over the years, the boy's doctor grew increasingly alarmed about a different problem that is threatening healthy children. Junk food, the doctor warned, is especially dangerous to Indians, who are far more prone to diabetes than people from other parts of the world.

One day in the doctor's waiting room, Mr Verma decided he had to do something. He drafted a petition and filed a public interest lawsuit in Delhi High Court in 2010, seeking a ban on the sale of junk food and soft drinks in and around schools across India.

The case has propelled court-ordered regulations of the food industry to the doorstep of the Indian government, where they have languished. They have outsized importance in India, with a population of 1.3 billion, because its people are far more likely to develop diabetes - which can lead to heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and amputations - as they gain weight than people from other regions, according to health experts.

Since 1990, the percentage of children and adults in India who are overweight or obese has almost tripled to 18.8 per cent from 6.4 per cent, according to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The International Diabetes Federation projects that the number of Indians with diabetes will soar to 123 million by 2040 as diets rich in carbohydrates and fat spread to less affluent rural areas.

In the years since the court ordered the government to develop guidelines to regulate junk food, the case has encountered ferocious opposition from the All India Food Processors Association, which counts Coca-Cola India, PepsiCo India and Nestle India as members, as well as hundreds of other companies.

President of the association Subodh Jindal said in an interview that junk food was unfairly blamed for diabetes and obesity. It was overeating, not the food itself, that has caused the problem, he said.

The government this year took a significant step that public health experts believe will help combat the rise of obesity.

It partially implemented a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, instituting a 40 per cent tax on such drinks that are carbonated, though not on juices made with added sugars that many children drink.

So far, the regulations to ban sales near schools sought by the court in Mr Verma's case have led to nought.

Mr Pawan Agarwal, chief executive of the Food Safety Standards Authority of India, insisted that the government's efforts have been sincere. As the case has played out on Twitter and in newspapers, some schools have voluntarily stopped serving junk food.

Mr Verma, 42, quit his job as a corporate marketing executive after his son's birth in 2006 and set up a foundation in 2007 to help families like his with sick children.

In the years since Mr Verma filed his suit, sales of packaged foods have increased 138 per cent; fast food 83 per cent; and carbonated drinks 58 per cent, according to Euromonitor International.

Coca-Cola chief executive James Quincey, in an interview with Indian media earlier this year, said he expected the Indian market to eventually become the company's third-largest in sales, up from sixth.

Mr Sanjay Khajuria, a Nestle India spokesman, noted that the firm has joined other companies in India to restrict advertising directed at children younger than 12 to products with a certain level of nutrients.

PepsiCo India vice-president of sales Harsh K. Rai also said the company has stopped advertising to children 12 and younger.

Mr Agarwal of the food safety authority said his agency is ready to start adopting new rules early next year for labelling healthy food with a green light and those high in fat, sugar and salt with a red light.

But he said taxing junk food and banning it around schools are long-term goals.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2017, with the headline 'Father sues to ban junk food, soft drinks in India's schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe