India, the control freak: First it came for your money, then your mojito, and now your prawns

Don’t do as you please.
Don’t do as you please.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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Imagine a young couple in one of the small towns along the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border planning a weekend outing. On a Saturday afternoon, the two head for a movie theatre. En route, they realise that half the cash they are carrying is in the now-demonetised Rs500 bills. The ATMs in the neighbourhood either have no money or are servicing long snaking lines of people.

With their budget slashed by half, the couple bins the movie plan. There are no good pubs and bars to spend time in as the state governments have declared total prohibition. The few functional watering holes serve only foreign tourists. So the lovebirds settle for a good Chinese restaurant where they order prawns for starters, and Manchurian chicken and fried rice for the maincourse. The portions served are so small—the Indian government doesn’t want food wasted—that neither is satiated.

As the couple heads back home, its furtive rendezvous ruined and appetite unmet, it is confronted by some cops and Anti-Romeo Squad thugs who beat them up badly for the “immoral behaviour” of just being together in public.

“Joyless India?” did you just say?

If the measures—some planned, some implemented—of the central and various state governments are any indication, “joyless” would be a mild term to use.

India has a long history of bans: From books to alcohol, various governments have used bans almost whimsically. However, in recent times these have gained a certain urgency and, perhaps, idiocy. Here’s a list:

All out of cash

The ball was set rolling with the demonetisation of the Rs500 and Rs1,000 bills in November 2016.

The cash crunch that followed left many commoners struggling and even resulted in a long trail of deaths. Months after the disruption, long queues could be seen outside the Reserve Bank of India branches across the country even till recently—months after the disruption. In the wake of demonetisation, weddings were postponed and hospitals even denied treatment to patients with the wrong currency notes. The move is said to have fuelled suicides and murders, too.

While some believe demonetisation will elevate India’s long-term economic prospects by weeding out corruption and accelerating the advent of the digital economy, others see only political motives and mere populist impulses.

No more getting tipsy

For years, the state of Gujarat has been alcohol-free, i.e., only officially. The district of Wardha in Maharashtra, too, has had prohibition in place—again, not entirely successfully.

Yet, in the past few months, a number of states have joined the quixotic bandwagon. Bihar in the north, for instance, imposed a state-wide prohibition last year. Madhya Pradesh in central India recently called for the phasing out of alcohol, citing its ill-effects on health. Chhattisgarh, too, has made its intentions clear in this regard. In 2015, south India’s Kerala state received the supreme court’s (SC) nod to restrict the serving of alcohol to five-star hotels.

To top it all, in line with the SC’s ruling, liquor shops and bars within 500 meters of national highways were shut down, hurting a third of all liquor stores in the country and leading to a loss of Rs20,000 crore. Even restaurants can no longer serve alcoholic drinks in such areas.

Pushing policing

Women’s safety is a major concern in India. Crimes related to women—rape, sexual harassment, murder—have strongly influenced electoral verdicts and public opinion over the past few years.

However, what the new government in UP did last month simply went overboard: It permitted the police to form Anti-Romeo Squads—a mostly volunteer-led quasi army. While their mandate is to ensure women’s safety in public spaces, reports of harassment and brutal thrashing of young couples began pouring in. The groups took to humiliating couples in parks, restaurants, and other public places. What’s worse, cops themselves are seen aiding such illegal acts. There are also fears of a religious bias wherein Muslim men are the targets.

UP’s neighbouring state of Uttarakhand is now seeing demands being raised for such squads.

While moral policing is not new to India, what is worrying is the official stamp it has now received.

Bite-sized control

“If a person can eat only two prawns, why should he or she be served six?” India’s food minister Ram Vilas Paswan ask a few days ago. “If a person eats two idlis, why serve four? It’s wastage of food and also the money people pay for something that they don’t eat.” Paswan said the hospitality industry would be asked whether it can restrict the size of the portions “voluntarily” or whether it needed the government to make legal provisions for it.

In short, it looks like the Indian government wants to take charge of how much you can eat, though Paswan later clarified saying that was not the idea.

Prime minister Narendra Modi, during a recent radio talk, pushed for authorities to designate portion sizes for meals at restaurants and hotels. In his Mann Ki Baat programme, Modi termed the issue of food wastage as injustice to the poor.

However, what’s left unanswered is if such one size-fits-all measures could make a dent in a country of 1.3 billion people.   

Beef with eating

Now, what could be worse than lingering hunger after a meal at a restaurant? Death, for sure.

Fear stalks Indians on the streets in most parts of the country now owing to a rising number of reports of vigilante justice against those seen to be consuming or trading in beef or cattle. Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched in the village of Dadri in UP a few years ago. He was alleged to have consumed beef. Senior Modi government officials rushed to the location, only to either defend Akhlaq’s murderers or just sharpen the rhetoric against beef-eating.

The embers of  that murder hadn’t died out when another middle-aged Muslim, this time in Rajasthan’s Alwar, was murdered by a cow-protection squad a few days ago. Again, Rajasthan’s ministers were heard justifying the murderers.

A number of such cases have been reported over the past few years, mostly involving Muslims. Many states have banned beef, some making exceptions for foreigners. The Bharatiya Janata Party, ruling most of these states, has taken pains to convince that such bans wouldn’t be imposed on states in India’s northeast where the party has formed governments or in Kerala where it is trying to make a mark.

But in all other places under the BJP’s control, death comes riding on a cow.

As for the young couple, next Saturday, it plans to… oh forget it.

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