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GIRTH CONTROL

Every child is born with well-designed bowels; their exercise requires no training. And yet parents give them considerable attention, and spend much energy in turning a child into a disciplined bowel soldier. In better-off societies, it is even possible to buy volumes telling parents how to impart this skill. What is an instinctive process has been made into an elaborate ritual. However, it entirely escapes notice that feeding oneself is an equally complex procedure and calls for no less demanding training. People’s eating habits show enormous variations across the world. There are many foods that can be eaten without much education; but they do not form the essence of culinary culture. Instead, people devote considerable time, effort and ingenuity to food preparation; the diverse end results of the process lead to corresponding variations in the modes of ingestion. The dietary habits into which people are trained in childhood prove surprisingly persistent later in life.

That is one part of the explanation of the British addiction to bacon, which has been blamed for poor nutritional status. In the hard times that have fallen upon the poor, they have cut down on bread, beef and beer and given themselves over to bacon. They cannot be blamed for it, for crisp bacon is a delectable British delicacy. But too much of it is as sure as cake to give its consumers large, rotund shapes. They may not look undernourished, but they are storing up health hazards. That, however, is not the only explanation; pigs are also amazingly efficient converters of fodder into food. Westerners — and now, India’s Chinese neighbours to the east — have perfected the technology of confining pigs to the smallest of spaces and filling them with cheap grain at tremendous speed. This advanced technology brought down the cost of food and enabled people of advanced civilizations to concentrate on more durable consumables. But when they fell upon hard times, it also made them obese and lazy. Such are the ills of prosperity gone astray.

Plenty does not present a problem in rich countries alone; India also produces far more foodgrains than are consumed. But their childhood training has convinced Indians that foodgrains are fit only for humans. So the country does not face a surfeit of pigs. Pork is not the only fattening food; it is equally possible to expand human girth on rice and wheat, although it requires more effort. But the Indians’ maternal government is mindful of their waists, and gives them just enough grains to lift them out of poverty. It is not easy; limiting their consumption forces the government to accumulate growing mountains of foodgrains. But it considers such greed worthwhile for the sake of India’s health. It has often been alleged that the government keeps hoarding grains to make rich farmers happy. That cannot be denied, but the government’s concern about Indian waistlines must be acknowledged.