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MANGO REPUBLIC

The hardiness of the subcontinental stomach is often a matter of postcolonial pride. Far from taking offence at the phrase, Indians smile indulgently when foreigners apologetically admit to suffering from the ‘Delhi belly’. Whenever it is asked to pull up its socks with pests, pesticides, particulate matter or poison gases, the ‘new’ India readily lapses into projecting itself as part of the third or developing world, in which worrying about the quality of food, air or drinking water has to give way to more urgent problems of poverty, starvation and illiteracy. An immediate increase in the volume of agriculture and industry overrides issues of contamination and pollution, being finical about which, the argument goes, is all very well for richer nations that can afford to be so. And this seems to be the quickest way out of assuming any responsible or accountable position at every level of thought and action — from bureaucratic and political attitudes in international fora, to everyday habits and transactions among ordinary people.

Whether committing to measures for reducing emissions, or ensuring that milk is properly pasteurized or street food cooked with unadulterated oil, evading standards or regulations, especially when they have to do with the harmful effects of what the body is taking into itself, has become an unthinking way of being in this part of the world. To be absolved of any obligation to think about hygiene, health and the environment, for the common or individual good, is regarded as the entitlement of the deprived.

So, instead of taking automatic recourse to indignation, defensiveness or self-pity, India should use the European Union’s temporary ban on Indian mangoes and other vegetables as an opportunity to turn the mirror of scruple upon itself and put some thought, planning and action into its unthinking habits and predilections on matters of hygiene, health and the environment. In the realm of food, for instance, the love of it has to be matched by an awareness of rudimentary standards of quality and practice — not only when dealing with more demanding trading partners but also in its more domestic expectations and transactions. This is both a question of consideration for others, the sense of a shared planet, and a more enlightened respect for one’s own entitlements as a human being. The matter is thus ethical and political, as well as practical and mundane. India is a country where poverty and illiteracy — together with the disempowerment and corruption they breed — foster desperate measures of frightening proportions, in the deprived as well as the depriving, when it comes to what people are compelled to eat, drink and breathe. Such a lack of consciousness (and conscience) about something as basic to well-being as food, water or air should be the matter of a different sort of outrage and self-examination from the angry making of excuses provoked by the European ban.