Sriharsh Mallela
Aug 11, 2016

Affluence is making Indians seriously unwell

Urbanisation and economic advancement comes at a cost, writes Flamingo's Sriharsh Mallela.

Sriharsh Mallela
Sriharsh Mallela

According to the World Health Organisation, one in four Indians over 30 is now at risk of dying of a lifestyle-related disease. To put that in perspective, a population equivalent to that of the United States is vulnerable. In a country with deep-rooted cultural traditions that promote healthy living such as yoga and Ayurveda, how did we come to this?

Indians are increasingly leading disrupted lifestyles. Indian beliefs about food, clothing and shelter, passed down by parents and grandparents, were the pillars of a healthy lifestyle. If a family had all three, they could consider themselves prosperous. However, new levels of wealth afforded by economic advancement have chipped away at Indian cultural habits. Consequently, as Indians get more affluent, they are also getting more susceptible to lifestyle ailments.

The ‘either/or’ food phenomenon

Until right before liberalisation in 1991, the food that Indians ate was more or less the same, irrespective of social class. This was because most of the population had access to similar kinds of food. Vegetables were available and cooked seasonally, local cuisines dominated, packaged food was rare and restaurant visits were infrequent.

With busier lifestyles, urban Indians are becoming an impatient lot, spending less time in the kitchen and instead eating out. Fruit and vegetables are consumed irrespective of season, and preservative-filled packaged foods from around the globe are filling Indian shelves despite their unsuitability to Indian climates and existing diets.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

The shift in our eating culture, most drastic in urban centres, has given India the unenviable distinction of being both the third most obese and one of the most malnourished countries in the world. India is quickly becoming an either/or population. Either Indians are obese or they are malnourished. Obesity is increasing the occurrence of diabetes, blood pressure and other related diseases.

Looking good but feeling bad

The idea of scarcity once anchored Indian attitudes towards clothing. Clothes were bought on special occasions and not discarded until they were beyond repair. Now, however, they are used for expression. This has shaped urban Indians’ attitudes not only towards clothes but also other goods. People who used to only value functionality in a product now measure their self worth through the acquisition of new ones.

It is increasingly important to not only be successful but also look the part through status markers. Hence, there is a growing disconnect between what people want and what they have. This is putting immense pressure on the white-collar population to have a fast growing career and packed social life.

The pursuit of material goods has resulted in a generation of Indians working harder than ever, with work overrunning other aspects of life. Its impact is seen in the mental health of urban Indians with over 42 percent of employees in the private sector suffering from depression and anxiety-related disorders, according to a study by industry association ASSOCHAM. While Indians struggle to build material success, their internal worlds are collapsing.

Bigger cities, smaller spaces

Indian urban centres are struggling under an unrelenting influx of people. One third of the population in urban India are migrants, according to the 2011 census. This has put a lot of strain on infrastructure, resulting in an acute lack of open spaces and people living in matchbox-sized apartments. Commutes to and from work are getting longer.

As large families cram into small spaces, shelter is transitioning from a space for rest, recuperation and bonding to one of irritation and strained relationships due to a lack of regular access to basic needs like water, electricity and privacy. This shift has exasperated stress levels, contributing to the deterioration of already fragile mental and physical health.

As Indians get richer they are increasingly making unhealthy food choices, chasing material status markers and moving into more stressful environments. The original Indian conception of food, clothing and shelter had an inherent sense of balance, which has been lost. The paradoxical new reality is as Indians succeed in reaping the benefits of development they are also coming under the grip of lifestyle diseases. The only way ahead is to restore some balance in Indian lifestyles.

Sriharsh Mallela is associate director at Flamingo Mumbai

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