One Man’s Stand Against Junk Food as Diabetes Climbs Across India


After seeing the obese girl in the doctor’s waiting room, Mr. Verma couldn’t shake his concern about junk food. He also had a worry closer to home: his daughter, Lavanya, sometimes bought burgers at school instead of eating the rice and lentils her mother sent from home.

First the couple approached state officials about banning junk food in New Delhi schools — to no avail.

Then in 2010 he filed the lawsuit, basing his case on the constitutional authority of courts to intervene to protect citizens’ right to life.

In 2011, the presiding judge asked the national government “to take concrete and effective steps to ensure that the sale and supply of junk food in and around schools is banned.”

The food industry hired some of the country’s most politically-connected lawyers to fight the case, including Mukul Rohatgi, the former additional solicitor general; Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who has been a member of Parliament and spokesman for the Congress Party, which has ruled India for most of its post-independence history; and Kapil Sibal, the three-time president of the Supreme Court Bar Association who had served as a senior minister in the Congress-led government.

The hearings dragged on. Finally, in 2014, the working group of an expert committee picked by the food authority recommended that sales of potato chips, sugar sweetened beverages, ready-to-eat noodles and chocolates be banned within 500 yards of schools.

The food association strenuously objected. D. V. Malhan, its executive secretary, said in an interview that there are so many schools that the proposed sales ban would have hurt the industry badly.

Photo

Children in the library of the Uday Foundation, which offers tutoring for underprivileged children in the afternoons.

Credit
Atul Loke for The New York Times

In early 2015, the food authority in the health ministry finally recommended regulations to the court, including some limitations on the sale of junk food around schools. The judge ordered the recommendations carried out within three months. Instead, the food authority appointed yet another committee.

Last year, at a meeting in New Delhi, that committee proposed taxing junk food, prohibiting advertising of it during children’s television shows and requiring consumer labeling of processed food.

Mr. Malhan, of the food association, denounced the report for not soliciting industry input earlier. Shouting, he said the guidelines were unacceptable.

It has been nearly two years since that contentious meeting.

Mr. Agarwal, chief executive of the food authority, insisted his agency is finally ready to start adopting new rules early next year for labeling 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 were long term goals.

“There is no point in confronting industry on these issues,” he said.

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