The American president’s — any American president’s — fitness programme is proudly shown off. It does not merely tell Americans that their burdens are resting on strong and healthy shoulders, but also that the president is setting the right example. But the pleasant ruminations on fitness afforded by images of the president — any president — in a gleaming tracksuit differ sharply from responses to the government’s bans for the sake of health, on smoking in public spaces for example. Even then, there is often public support for the government’s concern about smoking. But the New York mayor, concerned enough about obesity and diabetes to be determined to ban the sale of super-sized sugary drinks in shops and cinemas has been receiving less support than opposition. The moral is clear. Too much governmental concern about people’s health and fitness is not a good thing.
Should the New York mayor be wrestling with his people’s eating —soft-drinking — habits at all? Smoking may be bad for non-smokers — the best excuse for banning it — but soft drinks are bad only for the drinker. Is this any of the government’s business? Similarly, is it any of the Indian government’s business how schools assess the physical fitness of their students? The sports ministry has proposed a national physical fitness programme through which students from class V onwards would have to run, do sit-ups and sit-and-reach exercises, perform standing vertical jumps and broad jumps to demonstrate their cardio-respiratory endurance, muscular strength, flexibility and explosive strength. The proposal has also a schedule of grading from ‘very good’ to ‘very poor’, linked to an addition of percentages up to a maximum of three to the academic results. This is concern with a vengeance. Easier to wreak, too, since the targets are school children.
The sports ministry’s desires are noble: it wants fit children and it also wants to catch the best athletic talents young. But nobility can be overbearing, ignoring the possibility that the weaker children may injure themselves trying to come up to scratch or to ensure that that their academic reports do not suffer because of their bad sit-ups. It is not the government’s job to make all children run a mile. Ensuring nutrition and easily accessible drinking water for them, looking after the environment and providing them with places to play in are more urgent tasks in which no ministry has shown much success. Making an anxious child do vertical jumps is not the way to cull the best athletic talent either. The Indian authoritarian streak finds full flow in government, hence the exercises, grades, the link with academics and even the precise percentages have already been worked out in the proposal. When will it learn where its real business lies?