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Delhi man Rahul Verma's David versus Goliath battle against junk food in diabetes ridden India
Rahul Verma's life completely changed after the birth of his son. Verma's son was born a gravely ill child suffering from multiple digestive complications. What followed were endless visits to an endocrinologist.

(Image credit: The New York Times)

However, these visits shifted Verma's attention to another growing problem affecting healthy children in India. The doctor warned him that junk food was particularly harmful for Indians, who are more prone to diabetes in comparison to people from other parts of the world.

During once such visit to his son's doctor, Verma came across a young girl who had put on weight by eating potato chips. He decided there and then that enough was enough.

"On one side you have children like my son, who are born with problems, and on the other side you have children who are healthy and everything is fine and you are damaging them giving them unhealthy food, " says Verma.

Verma along with his wife Tullika, drafted a petition in their tiny apartment, decorating it with fairy lights and pictures of Lord Ganesha, who is known to conquer all obstacles. He eventually filed the public interest litigation (PIL) in the Delhi High Court in 2010 demanding a ban on the sale of junk food and aerated drinks in and around schools across India.

His court case acted as a catalyst for felicitating regulations in the food industry. Acting on his PIL, the court asked the Indian government to come up with necessary guidelines to regulate junk food consumption, something which had been of least priority up till now.

According to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, since 1990, the percentage of obese children and adults has increased from 6.4 per cent to 18.8 per cent in India.

As per estimates of the International Diabetes Federation, by 2040, India will have 123 million diabetics, all thanks to widespread consumption of foods rich in carbohydrates and fat even in less affluent rural areas now.

"We are sitting on a volcano," says Dr Anoop Misra, chairman of Fortis Healthcare, one of India's leading private hospital chains.

Ever since its filing, Verma's petition which can't be described anything less than a David versus Goliath battle, has hit constant roadblocks due to stiff opposition from the All India Food Processors Association, which has hundreds of junk food manufacturing giants including Coca-Cola India, PepsiCo India and Nestle as its members.

According to Subodh Jindal, the president of the association, junk food was unfairly being blamed for diabetes and obesity. In an interview, while asserting that the actual problem was not the food itself but overeating, he asked, "Do you eat two pizzas a day or two pizzas a week?"

However, in a significant step that has been hailed by health experts, who believe that it will go a long way in curbing obesity in India, the Indian government, this year, imposed a tax of 40 per cent on sugar sweetened carbonated drinks.

In the meanwhile, Verma's petition seeking a ban on sale of junk food in and around schools in the country still seems far from achieving its objective with no concrete regulations in sight.

42-year-old Verma, a corporate marketing executive, quit his job in 2006 after the birth of his son and set up the Uday Foundation (named after his son) in 2007 to help families like his with sick children.

Verma's son Uday was born with parts of his digestive system missing. The boy had to go through nine surgeries before he could lead a normal life.

Over the years, through a long-fought legal battle, on many occasions, frustrated over the government dragging its foot in the matter, Verma turned emotional, ruing his decision of filing the petition. Once a teary eyed Verma begged the judge to let him withdraw his petition.

With tears rolling down his cheeks, Verma said, "Nothing is happening. I've wasted my time. I could have helped hundreds of kids."

However, Chief Justice Dipak Misra did not let Verma take back his petition and instead, asked senior advocate Neeraj Kishan Kaul, who was present in the court, to act as pro bono counsel in Verma's case. To everyone's amusement, 54-year-old Kaul quietly approached the bench and quirkily told the judge, "You've got the wrong guy. I like junk food."

The food industry gave stiff resistance to Verma's petition by hiring some of the country's most politically-influential lawyers including former solicitor general Mukul Rohatgi, former MP and Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi and noted lawyer and senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal.

The hearing dragged on in the case at a snail's pace, until in 2014, the working group of an expert committee appointed by the food authority recommended that sale of potato chips, sugar-sweetened beverages, ready-to-eat noodles and chocolates be banned within 500 yards of schools.

Further headway was made in this battle against junk food when in 2015, the health ministry recommended regulations to the court, including limitations on the sale of junk food around schools. However, while the judge asked the recommendations be implemented within three weeks, the food authority appointed another committee.

At a meeting in New Delhi, last year, the committee proposed taxing junk food, prohibiting advertisement of such products during children's TV shows and proper labelling of processed foods. However, the food association brushed aside these recommendations.

Verma's foundation serves khichdi, a dish made of rice, lentils and vegetables to at least 1000 patients thrice a week outside the hospital where his son was treated. His rapidly growing foundation now has 700,000 followers on Twitter.

In the years since Verma filed the petition, consumption of fast food has sharply risen across India. According to market research firm Euromonitor International, sales of packaged food have increased by 138 per cent; fast food 83 per cent; and carbonated drinks by 58 per cent.

In an interview with Indian media earlier this year, Coca-Cola's chief executive James Quincey had said that he expected India to eventually become the company's third largest market, up from sixth. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have already announced plans to invest billions of dollars in the Indian market.

In the backdrop of all these developments, Verma continues his fight against junk food. His former partner on the case, pro bono lawyer Neeraj Kishan Kaul feels that more people like Verma are required to make a difference.

Ironically, while sipping a can of Coke, Kaul says, "You need a movement to fight the inertia of the system."

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