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The Big Ban Theory: Kerala’s fat tax and thin fact


Neha Hiranandani

Remember when Kerala was God’s own country? Lush paddy fields, swaying coconut trees and gorgeous backwaters. All that beauty made all the more pleasant by a toddy at the local tipple. But then the state government started binge-watching the Big Ban Theory. Last year Kerala all but banned alcohol consumption in the state shutting down over 700 local bars. This was a big move as only 27 bars in 5-star hotels could now sell IFML in a state which once accounted for 16 percent of national alcohol sales.

In another episode of the Big Ban Theory, Keralites have been told to stop eating fatty foods. But this episode is neither courageous not factual. Yes, in typical communist style, there is dichotomous treatment between the local fatty variety and the fare served in upscale establishments. But in reverse logic to the alcohol ban that took on the unorganised sector, here a few Burger Kings are taxed while mountains of local banana chips are fried in peace.

There is no doubt that India has a looming obesity problem. Punjab leads the fat pack with almost 30 per cent women and 22 per cent men being obese. (Udta Punjab indeed, can Punjabis even get off the ground?) Kerala is not far behind with low vegetable consumption being cited as a leading cause of the state’s expanding waistline – who knew there was such little karela in the Kerala diet?

The fat tax may have a noble intent but it is skimpy on the facts. For one, there are too few multinational fast food chains of the sort that the government is targeting. Kochi only has three McDonald’s franchisees and four KFCs as opposed to thousands of local fatty food stands. By state Finance Minister Dr Isaac’s own estimation, the ban will bring in Rs 10 crore to the state coffers. Hardly a fat number.

And when we talk about fat without discussing sugar, we are jumping from the frying pan into the fire. As the latest scientific findings show, diseases like diabetes and obesity have closer links to sugar than fat. Global experts are likening sugar’s addictive effects to drugs like cocaine. The US government’s dietary guidelines have recently announced a cap on sugar consumption while the UK has announced a new tax on sugary drinks.

The fat tax on a few burger joints will not make people healthier in Kerala. In fact, this sort of arbitrary taxation is dangerous because it leads to the perception that sugary or local fatty foods may be relatively healthier. If the state really does care about its waistline, it needs to make a significant stand that is backed by scientific evidence: control sugar before fat. And just like its courageous alcohol ban, it must clampdown on the unorganised sector which is really posing a big, fat problem. Vadas and jalebis are just as bad as burgers and doughnuts and to say otherwise is nothing but communist, anti-MNC posturing.

This fat tax is the first of its kind in India and it will set a precedent for other states. Gujarat is already thinking along similar lines. If we’re not careful, we’ll have spinoffs of the Big Ban Theory that are just as arbitrary.

Kerala fry is okay but French fry is not. There’s not a lot of fat, sorry fact, in that. Even God won’t be able to reconcile with this skimpy logic in His Own Country.

Source: DNA