In India: Waste that saves lives

Plates of egg rice at a stall in Hyderabad on June 3, 2013.  India is home to a third of the world's poor and where 48 per cent children are malnourished. The spotlight is increasingly on the amount of food wasted at weddings, hotels, restaurant
Plates of egg rice at a stall in Hyderabad on June 3, 2013.  India is home to a third of the world's poor and where 48 per cent children are malnourished. The spotlight is increasingly on the amount of food wasted at weddings, hotels, restaurants, social and religious events. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

Last year on Akshaya Tritiya, a holy day for Hindus that is considered an auspicious day to wed, Dr Vivek Agrawal was able to feed 10,000 people from left-overs collected from 16 weddings in Jaipur.

The sobering thought, he said, was that uneaten food from lavish buffet meals was going to waste in scores of other wedding feasts across the country.

“The worst wastage of food in India is in weddings,” said Dr Vivek Agrawal of the Jaipur-based Centre for Development Communication (CDC).

“Some 10 to 20 per cent food gets wasted at weddings. Religious events are also no exception.”

Dr Agrawal’s non profit agency runs a programme, started in 2010, collecting food for the poor from weddings and other social and religious events.

An average of 1,000 people are fed every day and that number multiplies during the wedding seasons which run from November to December and from late March to beginning of May.

“When you go to a wedding there are sometimes 100 varieties of food nowadays,” said Mr Agrawal.

“The trend of having multi-cuisine menus for weddings has added to wastage.”

In a country that is home to a third of the world's poor and where 48 per cent children are malnourished, the spotlight is increasingly on the amount of food wasted at weddings, hotels, restaurants, social and religious events.

Though India is still far behind countries like the United States where studies say Americans throw away 40 percent of the food supply annually, activists say it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

The environment ministry recently revealed it has asked five star hotels in India to give guests the option of ordering half portions and donate leftovers to local shelters and food banks.

Social activists see the initiatives as good but only a small step in the effort to stop food wastage in the country.What is needed, they say, is better awareness.

“It is not taught as part of the upbringing or curriculum and the values have to come from schools,” said food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma.  “People who can afford it take food for granted.”

It is estimated that 15 to 20 per cent of food is wasted at weddings, parties or restaurants.

Much like Singapore's “Buffet syndrome”  people in India pile their plates high to taste the many dishes on offer. Weddings normally feature a buffet of Indian dishes, Chinese, Thai and Western continental.

Half eaten dishes pile up in empty bins next to the tables at many weddings, functions, or other occasions.

“At the individual household level there is no rise in food wastage but its getting too high in social gatherings particularly weddings which are getting fatter day by day,” said Prof Suresh Misra at the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPM), a public policy school.

A survey conducted by IIPM for the food ministry in and around the capital Delhi found that 93.4 per cent of its residents agreed that food is wasted in social gatherings.

Out of 800 people surveyed, half of them from the hospitality industry, 89.1 per cent said food wastage is very high during marriages. It also found that 32.5 per cent said too much food was wasted during anniversaries, while 50 per cent said the least was wasted during seminars and conferences.

“Social functions, particularly marriages, are now opportunities for the elites to showcase their wealth and status,” said the IIPM study. “Greater aspirations have also fueled the trend to have luxurious weddings and the middle class is trying to emulate the elite. In some cases the more the number of dishes served the higher the social standing.

Dr Agrawal called such feasts “ a vulgar show of wealth”.

“If you are having 101 items (dishes) I will have 102 that is the race,” he said.

The problem is made even worse by many failing to RSVP to invitations, leaving a hostess or host with little idea of the numbers that will show up, resulting in poor meal planning.

The government in 2011 gave up on a plan to revive the Guest Control Order, an old requirement limiting the number of guests, and to come up with (they never got around to even framing it) legislation similar to a law in Pakistan that regulates the number of dishes that can be served at social events.

In India's federal structure food is a state subject and implementation was seen to be tough.

Suggestions from activists range from including food wastage as a subject in schools, making the size of plates at events smaller so people dont take extra food, starting an awareness campaign and also restricting the number of food items served.

In India the problem starts before food even reaches the table. More than 30 per cent of fruits and vegetables perish from the absence of cold storage facilities and thousands of tons of food grain rot every year in poor storage facilities. The wastage in cooked food only adds the existing problem.

Subhash Chandra Agrawal, a Right to Information activist, said: “At a time when a large number of people in India are deprived of food in the present era of high priced vegetables and pulses it is indeed a matter of great regret that large quantity of food is wasted in marriage-relate and other functions.”

gnirmala@sph.com.sg