Indians planning lavish wedding parties may face pressure to slim down their menus, as the government considers curbing celebrations that highlight a growing gulf between rich and poor.
Food Minister K.V. Thomas said April 18 that a panel will consider limiting the number of guests who can be invited to weddings and other social events, as well as the dishes they can be served. Neighboring Pakistan restricts such revelers to one plate of food, he said, something India could emulate.
While India’s government is reacting after soaring food prices dented the popularity of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, leading to nationwide protests, wedding planners and policy experts said the proposals would be impossible to enforce and fail to address the root cause of food insecurity in India, home to 42 percent of the world’s undernourished children, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous, it’s a reactionary, poorly thought through, populist measure which I don’t think is implementable,” said Ashish Abrol, a former Deutsche Bank AG wealth manager and employee of International Business Machines Corp., who started the wedding planning firm Big Indian Wedding last year.
Consumer-price inflation at 9 percent is the highest in the Group of 20 nations after Argentina and Russia. Thomas says up to 30 percent of food is wasted at weddings in India. About 40 percent of India’s fruit and vegetables rot before they can be sold because of a lack of cold storage facilities and poor transport infrastructure, according to government figures.
“To think that it is going to have an impact on the food crisis is completely foolish,” Biraj Patnaik, a campaigner for securing food rights for the poor and an adviser to the Supreme Court, said of Thomas’s plan by phone yesterday.
Foreign retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Carrefour SA, barred from selling goods directly to Indian consumers, argue they can improve the quality of the supply chain if restrictions are relaxed.
Regional political parties within Singh’s ruling alliance oppose such a move, saying that it would threaten the livelihoods of millions of small shopkeepers and drive down farmers’ incomes. India ranked 67 out of 84 nations, below Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Pakistan, on the food policy institute’s Global Hunger Index compiled last year.
Indian middle-class weddings are renowned for their over indulgence and growing wealth in the country, fuelled by economic expansion that may reach 9.25 percent this fiscal year, has led to ever more extravagant celebrations.
Kanwar Singh Tanwar, a businessman and a member of Singh’s Congress party, invited about 30,000 people to celebrate his son’s marriage to a fellow politician’s daughter, the Indian Express reported in March.
Tanwar’s son received a Bell 429 helicopter from his parents-in-law and the reception had over 500 counters serving food, the newspaper said. Responding to criticism the wedding was excessive, Tanwar said that the celebration was a “simple” affair, the Express said.
Prakash Javadekar, a spokesman for India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, vowed to support government plans to crack down on excessive spending at weddings, which, he said, risks increasing social unrest in a country where so many people are hungry.
“Lavish parties create a divide between the rich and the poor,” said Javadekar, who sits in parliament’s upper house, the Rajya Sabha. “We need simpler marriages.”
In India, about 80 percent of the population controls only 30 percent of the nation’s wealth, according to a study in 2006 by the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Singh’s government will spend about $13.6 billion this fiscal year on food subsidies for the poor.
Thomas said the panel that will consider measures to rein in parties will meet in the middle of May and then discuss the matter with representatives of state government in June. Its members have not yet been named, he said.
Food-price inflation averaged 16 percent in the last fiscal year after the late arrival of rains caused disruption in the supply of fruits and vegetables including onions, a staple in the local cuisine. Prices of milk, eggs and meat have also gained as rising incomes spur consumer demand.
Then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1997 imposed curbs on the amount of food that could be served at weddings as part of austerity measures. Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, imposed similar curbs in Pakistan’s Punjab province when he was elected chief minister in 2008.
Hosts can serve a curry, rice and a sweet dish, according to Siddiq-ul-Farooq, a spokesman for the Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League. Parties must end by 11 p.m.
“This law is working in Punjab and people are benefitting from it,” Farooq said by phone from Islamabad. “Poor people now have a very good reason to avoid overspending on these occasions. In the past, they were forced to follow the rich under social pressure.”
Congress President Sonia Gandhi has periodically called on party colleagues to avoid displays of wealth, including telling officials to fly economy class, cut down on phone bills and restrict their use of government-provided vehicles.