Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rickshaws, Parks, Diet and Public Health(This piece originally appeared in

Rana Bose
It has finally dawned on me why there are still some Kolkatans who like to ride hand-pulled rickshaws with an oblivious cadence. Some wear sun shades; some pull out a vanity mirror and look at their faces while they swab the sweat from their brows, liberally mixing the talcum powder they had walloped themselves with, thus ensuring a caked topping on their pallor. Others bring a ton of merchandise along just to make the maximum out of a transportation logistics issue and make life miserable even further for the puller. They are obviously quite unconscious that they are virtually sitting on the shoulders of an emaciated, barefooted Bihari man whose clothes are in tatters and whose face betrays the complete despondency that an independent nation has found fit to bestow on its citizens.
No, it cannot only be that they cannot afford buses, trams or the metro or mini buses. It is also not true that for short trips from a main road into the interior of a neighborhood, a hand-pulled rickshaw is the best bet. It is also not true that this nation's politicians are so sensible and sensitive to the poor that they have agreed to maintain this mode of transportation out of a charitable dispensation towards the unskilled migrant from the rural interiors.
This morning as I walked with a friend around the Rabindra Sarovar lakes in South Kolkata (a wonderfully organised lakefront with excellent jogging and walking courses) it was clear to me that without exception, the people attempting to do some bizarre stretching exercises, to meditate, do some yoga, or simply pretending to stretch their muscles, were all out of shape. Only about 0.5 per cent of the people seemed fit enough to jog or do power walking of any degree. Most people, young and old, had bloated midriffs, drooping chests and jowls, flabby thighs and arms, stiff shoulders, barrel chested mid sections and collapsed spines with curved backs and terrible postures. A crew of women sat around the beautiful granite seating areas, wearing Nike and Adidas shirts, with bulging midriffs and sweating uncomfortably. I had no clue what they had done to achieve this status. When I went past the spot about an hour later, they had not moved an inch. The sweating and panting had still not subsided. A crew of middle-aged male private company executive types (you can figure them out by their glasses and hairstyles and tendency to wear designer but ill-fitting shorts) walked by onspindly legs, spare tires floating around precariously, talking loudly and ribbing each other with probably very funny jokes. They were not serious about the morning walk they had planned. It was more of a morning jam, away from the wives, than a serious attempt to maintain their health.
Of course, there is a whole generation of people "going to gyms," "working out!" And they would object to this piece. And even amongst them there are whole slews that are still out of shape while they work away madly on ellipticals. But, I am not talking about the very urban savvy, well-heeled and travelled youth, who are an exception. I am talking about the class of people who have always lived in their neighbourhoods and despite all the exposure in the new media about healthy habits and proper food, have not changed their habits. And they are the ones who gravitate towards rickshaws, invariably. When I see women in their thirties and forties walking around... sorry a large number of them do not walk - they waddle... and men, as well, walk in the most uncontrolled manner, coughing and spitting incessantly, you would think that any moment they would roll over one way as opposed to the other and slip or keel over. Why is there such a preposterous trend towards bad posture and poor motor skills? What is wrong with the average Kolkatan in terms of healthy food and exercise habits? I suppose the answer lies somewhere between the extracts from the studies quoted below and also some geo-physical and socio-political factors.
According to a paper published in 2011 in the World Congress of Cardiology, "Seventy-nine per cent of men and 83 per cent of women in India were found to be physically inactive, while 51 per cent of men and 48 per cent of women were found to have high fat diets. Some 60 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women were found to have a low intake of fruits and vegetables, while 12 per cent of men and 0.5 per cent of women smoke.
Moreover, the prevalence of biological and metabolic risk factors was also found to be high. Overweight and obesity were reported in 41 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women. High blood pressure was reported in 33 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women, while high cholesterol was found in one-quarter of all men and women. Diabetes (and/or metabolic syndrome) was also reported in 34 per cent of men and 37 per cent of women." The study further goes on to say, "India has the dubious distinction of being known as the coronary and diabetes capital of the world," said Prof. Prakash Deedwania, University of California, San Francisco, USA. "These results show why - and must prompt the government to develop public health strategies that will change lifestyles, if these risk factors are to be controlled." To me this is a cardiovascular and diabetic epidemic. Poor food habits and lack of exercise is pandemic. And the neglect of the State is appalling.
So, in spite of the young folks who are going to gyms and keeping in good shape, the majority of Kolkata's population is not in good shape. So rickshaws must continue....
Let us however also look at some other issues. Apart from the historical affinity for creamy, fatty, cholesterol-rich diets handed down as a result of successive ethnic onslaughts on the Indian subcontinent (thus encouraging an essentially pre-industrial cultural dispensation towards a feudal grandeur in cooking) there are also the current side effects of neo-liberalism and its impact on the girdle. Surprised? Well consider this!
India is a hot country. In parts of India, temperatures reach 48 deg C consistently. There is no respite from the heat even in the darkest interiors of a dwelling. Unless one is ready to venture out very early in the morning for a jog or an exercise regime when it is still dark, the idea of a morning or evening jog is not very pleasant. India's heat is unbearable. To top that off, easy access to potable water is simply not there. The state does not sense the need for greenery and shaded areas and cool parks, nor does the state guaranty water treatment that assures one of bacteria and germ free water on tap in all public spaces. So, now step in the neo-liberal commodity culture fetishists. You don't need to go out anymore. You can filter and treat your water at home. Several combinations of filter and water purifying machines and home coolers are available. And air conditioners are being manufactured by the millions or simply being imported. So, the nation is confining people to their homes, to simply loll around like beached whales on cold marble. Or, for the energetic young, to get transported in AC cars to AC super ersatz malls to simply chatter and fidget in food courts. India's very young, still not out of high school, are also out of shape.
I asked a friend what he ate throughout the day and I was appalled to find how much boiled rice, fried fish and vegetables stewed in thick creamy curries and some fried vegetables constituted the bulk of the daily food intake. And aside from that, cigarettes and milk-boiled tea was standard. If that was not enough, the consumption of buns with some meat or greasy egg parathas with meat rolls were quite commonplace.
I think it is time to reverse our diet. For a variety of reasons, perhaps one among them is to have the ability to move fast, when required.
A 165 g serving of white rice has 44 g of carbohydrates (26 per cent), almost negligible dietary fiber, 43 g of starch, 7 per cent protein, Calcium 13.2 mg (1 per cent) and negligible amounts of Iron, Phosphorus, Sodium, Potassium, etc. We eat rice, because it is a low-cost stomach filler. We sprinkle some dal and/or curry and trot off to work, with our midriffs bloated. At night, the same diet is followed by no exercise and the carbohydrate induces stupor and sleepiness. What a perfect way to not exercise your heart and not feed your brain with oxygen. Perhaps we should stop eating so much rice. We should use dal as a bowl of soup (loaded with proteins) and put some vegetables like peas and carrots in them and perhaps a tablespoon of rice with a squeeze of juice from a slice lemon. A reversal of rice with dal, and instead have dal with rice.
Then we will not ride on the backs of fellow citizens.
The author is an engineer, writer and playwright.
Tags: Rickshaws, Kolkata, overweight, obesity, diet

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