India weddings faulted for prodigious food waste

July 21, 2011 - 10:58 AM
India Asia Food Crisis

In this Tuesday, July 19, 2011 photo, Indian workers remove leftovers dumped after a wedding reception in Hyderabad, India. As the ranks of the wealthy surge with India's economic growth, many families are staging extravagant displays of food - often at their children's weddings - to show off their newfound affluence. But the extravagant waste that follows has horrified many in a nation where tens of millions of young children are malnourished. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)

NEW DELHI (AP) — When the daughter of businessman Mohammed Sultan got married recently, guests were treated to a lavish 30-course meal served in super-sized silver platters.

The Kashmiri feast, prepared by an army of chefs, included more than 20 meat and kebab dishes rich with spices to go with the saffron-flavored rice and naan breads.

Hours later, after the more than 500 guests had eaten their fill, the leftovers were dumped by the cartload at a nearby garbage site.

As the ranks of India's wealthy surge with rapid economic growth, many families are staging extravagant displays of food at their children's weddings to show off their newfound affluence.

The prodigious waste that follows has horrified many in a nation where food prices are skyrocketing and tens of millions of young children are malnourished.

At the recent wedding of the son of a ruling party leader, more than a 100 dishes representing Thai, Chinese, Mediterranean and Indian cuisines were served to over 30,000 guests. About 20 percent would've been thrown away.

India's Food Minister K.V. Thomas wants to curtail what has become known as the Big Fat Indian Wedding.

He says about one-fifth of the food served at weddings and social gatherings is discarded.

"It's a criminal waste," Thomas told The Associated Press.

The tons of food wasted at social gatherings across the country each day contrasts sharply with the food shortages, often bordering on chronic starvation, faced by millions of poor Indians.

Like elsewhere in Asia, food prices in India are rising fast — by 8.4 percent in June alone — as demand outstrips production. And the burden is falling disproportionately on the poor. Experts say the jump in prices for staples to record highs over the past few months has pushed another 64 million Asians into poverty.

According to the food minister, around 100,000 weddings and social events are held in India every day. He says food wasted each day at weddings and family functions in Mumbai alone would be enough to feed the city's vast slum population.

The International Food Policy Research Institute ranks India 67 out of 84 countries in its 2010 global hunger index, a survey of the prevalence of child malnutrition, child mortality and the proportion of people who are calorie deficient.

A committee Thomas established toyed with restricting the number of guests at weddings and the number of dishes that could be served. But the idea was quickly shot down by critics who said it would simply give corrupt inspectors another reason to solicit bribes.

Instead, the committee has decided on a public awareness campaign through the media and outreach to schools and social organizations to spread the word that less is more when it comes to weddings.

If the awareness campaign fails to make a dent, Thomas said he would consider resurrecting the guest limit proposal.

It would not be the first time.

In the early 1960s, in the aftermath of a brief border war with the Chinese, food shortages led the government to impose a 'Guest Control Order' limiting the number of wedding guests.

The restrictions were short-lived, although it did focus public opinion on adopting a measure of frugality.

Today, austerity is far from the minds of India's wealthy, who fly in orchids from Thailand to decorate overstuffed buffet tables.

"It's my only daughter's wedding. I don't want to stint on anything. And certainly not on food," said Alka Gupta, a businesswoman, as she studied a sheaf of menus from wedding caterers while planning her daughter's December marriage.

"My husband and I have worked hard all these years. Now we want a spectacular celebration to invite all our friends," she said.

Sociologist Abhilasha Kumari says that for the burgeoning middle classes, making a spectacle of weddings has become quite the accepted norm.

Bollywood, India's Hindi language film industry, has done much to popularize the theme of the big Indian wedding, says Kumari.

"Conspicuous consumption is no longer viewed with distaste as it once was under India's earlier socialist ethos," she said. "It's a new India where there are new value systems. Over-consumption is the norm."

The mere idea of scaled down celebrations has, not surprisingly, prompted a host of objections from businesses who bank on big weddings.

Cutting down on the number of dishes may not be an easy task, says Nitin Luthra, a leading New Delhi caterer who has organized some of Delhi's most spectacular weddings.

"People have begun demanding exotic cuisines. What they want is a memorable evening for everyone who attends the wedding," Luthra said.

Wedding planners scoffed at the idea of a cap on wedding guests as a measure to curb food shortages.

"It's a knee jerk reaction, a populist measure," says Ashish Abrol, a former IBM executive who in 2010 set up a wedding planning firm, Big Indian Wedding.

"It would be an utter failure since it's impossible to implement. The net result would be more corruption," Abrol said.

Suresh Misra at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, a New Delhi-based think tank, agrees that legislation to end the waste may not be "feasible or workable."

"It is true that we cannot force people to cut back on wasteful displays of food and spending, but if we get people thinking about the enormous amounts of food that's wasted, that itself would be a step forward," says Misra, who is a member of Thomas' committee.

But efforts to pick up the leftovers and distribute them to the poor have not taken off due to lack of infrastructure. Also, many Indians are reluctant to eat leftovers, partly because food spoils quickly in the country's hot climate.

Before cracking down on weddings, the government plans to cut back on its own excesses. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office has sent out letters to government departments urging austerity at seminars and conferences.

And in what could prove to be a landmark initiative, the government has prepared a draft law that would make access to food a basic right of every citizen. Under the proposed law, almost 70 percent of the population would be entitled to subsidized food.

Rising food costs, coupled with steep increases this year in the price of cooking gas and gasoline, have led poor families to pare food budgets.

But there are no such concerns for India's moneyed elite.

Gupta, the businesswoman, says for the affluent classes, rising prices are not the overriding concern when planning a wedding.

"I would like to scale down things, but feel helpless. There are so many expectations riding on the children's marriage. Very often it's not in our hands," she said. "If we resort to a scaled down wedding, it could send the wrong signal to our business associates."

Another problem is that most Indians don't take the R.S.V.P. seriously.

Wedding planners and caterers have to be prepared for huge turnouts at wedding parties, with the danger that the food may run out. If attendance is lower than expected, that extra food is scrapped.

"You have no idea how many will turn up at the wedding reception, and have to plan for both contingencies," said Gupta.

"We would lose face, and it would look so bad, if the food ran out."

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Associated Press writer Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India contributed to this story.