What’s happening to our country? A huge and diverse land of 135 million people, 29 states and 22 scheduled languages, yet we are caught in a single obsession—religion. All discussions, all decisions, all policies are shaped by religion. Sabarimala is on the edge of civil war. “Hindus are losing their patience,” a Union minister tells the Supreme Court after it postponed the Ayodhya case hearing. Uttar Pradesh changes Allahabad into Prayagraj. Soon Azamgarh will be Aryamgarh, Aligarh will be Harigarh, Muzaffarnagar will be Laxminagar, and Ahmedabad will be Karnavati. Will they become model cities as a result, all civic problems solved?
It’s not that we don’t have real issues bothering us. In fact we are immersed in issues that threaten us from multiple sides. The Reserve Bank is fighting the Finance Ministry. CBI, of all things, is sabotaging CBI. Breathing in the national capital has become more injurious to health than smoking. More and more youngsters are ending up jobless. Education has become a scandal. Not one Indian university is among the world’s top 100. Indians are committing unbelievable crimes, like raping a 100-year old woman. Our food has largely become unfit for human consumption. No party talks about these subjects. Religion alone counts.
Food, the everyday food we eat, has become a threat. Chemical farming is so widespread that hardly any vegetable escapes residual dangers. Pesticides that are banned globally are used in India. Even endosulfan was supported by ministers like Sharad Pawar despite the horrible deformations it caused in a generation of people. The “American way of farming” was introduced in Punjab in 1960s to usher in the Green Revolution. The result was the Cancer Train that left the farmers’ town of Bathinda every night for Bikaner, where treatment was more affordable. Overuse of pesticides turned the Green Revolution into a nightmare.
Did politicians do anything? Did people learn anything? Today farmers in several parts of Tamil Nadu use excessive pesticides on crops meant to go to neighbouring states, and less on portions meant for local consumption—a version of parochial patriotism. Fish is preserved in chemicals used to keep human corpses from decaying too fast. According to UN reports, India ranks among the top countries whose agri-food products are rejected in the US and the European Union. Indian exports are sent back because of the presence of microtoxins, microbial contamination, veterinary drug residue, heavy metals, unauthorised food additives, pesticides remnants and wrong product composition.
If our best is so often rejected by advanced countries, what would be the state of the food we keep for our own consumption? No wonder advanced countries export their worst to India. In 2008, as many as 35 large containers of hazardous American waste were found rotting in Tuticorin port for three years. Who allowed it to come there? Who kept it unattended for so long? How many made how much?
In 2003, Parliament went to the extent of banning Coca-Cola and Pepsi from its canteens because of too much toxic pesticides. But there was no ban outside Parliament. That means, what was bad for MPs was okay for ordinary folks. MPs themselves lifted the ban after a while. The Coca-Cola factory in Plachimada was closed because the waste fluids from it made neighbouring areas unfit for agriculture. But other factories in other cities continued. Before the power of lobbies, our policymakers bend their knees.
Colouring agents, among the most dangerous chemicals that go into food, are allowed free play. A look at Diwali halwas will show how colouring can even look unhealthy. Everybody knows that adulterants are used widely—saw dust (in chilli powder), coal tar (in tea), dyes (in turmeric, green chillies, apples). Most colour-enhancing dyes are highly carcinogenic. In responsibly governed countries these problems are contained. In Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, the authorities ensure that street food is not only clean but good enough to be a tourist attraction.
If others can do these things, why can’t we? Because we are obsessed with religion and its politics. Nothing else matters. In Madhya Pradesh, five sadhus were appointed ministers of state. Union minister Giriraj Singh warned Muslims of “consequences” if they did not support the Ram Mandir. As the distinguished novelist Mukundan said: There are no humans in India any longer, only Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Dalits. We have turned religion, meant to be a positive force, into a destructive idea. We spread hatred, attack others, lynch people in the name of God. No God will forgive us.