New Delhi: When the daughter of businessman Mohammad Sultan got married recently, guests were treated to a lavish 30-course meal served in super-sized silver platters.
The Kashmiri feast, prepared by an army of chefs, included more than 20 meat and kebab dishes rich with spices to go with the saffron-flavoured rice and naan breads.
Hours later, after the more than 500 guests had eaten their fill, the leftovers were dumped by the cartload at a nearby garbage site.
As the ranks of India's wealthy surge with rapid economic growth, many families are staging extravagant displays of food at their children's weddings to show off their new found affluence.
The prodigious waste that follows has horrified many in a nation where food prices are skyrocketing and tens of millions of young children are malnourished.
At the recent wedding of the son of a ruling party leader, more than a 100 dishes representing Thai, Chinese, Mediterranean and Indian cuisines were served to over 30,000 guests. About 20 per cent would've been thrown away.
India's Food Minister K.V. Thomas wants to curtail what has become known as the Big Fat Indian Wedding.
A criminal waste
He says about one-fifth of the food served at weddings and social gatherings is discarded.
"It's a criminal waste," Thomas said.
The tonnes of food wasted at social gatherings across the country each day contrasts sharply with the food shortages, often bordering on chronic starvation, faced by millions of poor Indians.
Like elsewhere in Asia, food prices in India are rising fast — by 8.4 per cent in June alone — as demand outstrips production. And the burden is falling disproportionately on the poor. Experts say the jump in prices for staples to record highs over the past few months has pushed another 64 million Asians into poverty.
According to the food minister, around 100,000 weddings and social events are held in India every day. He says food wasted each day at weddings and family functions in Mumbai alone would be enough to feed the city's vast slum population.
The International Food Policy Research Institute ranks India 67 out of 84 countries in its 2010 global hunger index, a survey of the prevalence of child malnutrition, child mortality and the proportion of people who are calorie deficient.
A committee Thomas established toyed with restricting the number of guests at weddings and the number of dishes that could be served. But the idea was quickly shot down by critics who said it would simply give corrupt inspectors another reason to solicit bribes.
Instead, the committee has decided on a public awareness campaign through the media and outreach to schools and social organisations to spread the word that less is more when it comes to weddings.
If the awareness campaign fails to make a dent, Thomas said he would consider resurrecting the guest limit proposal.
It would not be the first time.
In the early 1960s, in the aftermath of a brief border war with the Chinese, food shortages led the government to impose a ‘Guest Control Order' limiting the number of wedding guests.
The restrictions were short-lived, although it did focus public opinion on adopting a measure of frugality.
Today, austerity is far from the minds of India's wealthy, who fly in orchids from Thailand to decorate overstuffed buffet tables.
"It's my only daughter's wedding. I don't want to stint on anything. And certainly not on food," said Alka Gupta, a businesswoman, as she studied a sheaf of menus from wedding caterers while planning her daughter's December marriage.
"My husband and I have worked hard all these years. Now we want a spectacular celebration to invite all our friends," she said.
Sociologist Abhilasha Kumari says that for the burgeoning middle classes, making a spectacle of weddings has become quite the accepted norm.
Bollywood, India's Hindi language film industry, has done much to popularise the theme of the big Indian wedding, says Kumari.
New value systems
"Conspicuous consumption is no longer viewed with distaste as it once was under India's earlier socialist ethos," she said.
"It's a new India where there are new value systems. Over-consumption is the norm."
The mere idea of scaled down celebrations has, not surprisingly, prompted a host of objections from businesses who bank on big weddings.
Cutting down on the number of dishes may not be an easy task, says Nitin Luthra, a leading New Delhi caterer who has organised some of Delhi's most spectacular weddings.
"People have begun demanding exotic cuisines. What they want is a memorable evening for everyone who attends the wedding," Luthra said.
But efforts to pick up the leftovers and distribute them to the poor have not taken off due to lack of infrastructure.
Food inflation rate falls to lowest since 2009
India's food inflation rate fell to the lowest since March 2009 as grain output surged, an easing that may not be sufficient to prevent the central bank from raising interest rates next week.
An index measuring wholesale prices of agricultural products including rice and lentils gained 7.58 per cent in the week ended July 9 from a year earlier, the commerce ministry said. It gained 8.31 per cent the week before.
India has persisted with the most aggressive monetary tightening among Asia's major economies, boosting borrowing costs 10 times since mid-March 2010 to contain rising food and fuel prices. Production of grains surged 11 per cent to 241.56 million metric tonnes in the year ended June 30, P.K. Basu, the farm secretary said.
Case for an increase
"There is a valid case for tightening interest rates whether food prices move up or down because inflation is high," Anubhuti Sahay, a Mumbai-based economist at Standard Chartered Plc, said before the report. Sahay expects a 0.25 percentage point increase in the benchmark repurchase rate on July 26.
India's wholesale-price index rose 9.44 per cent in June from a year earlier, remaining above 9 per cent for a seventh month. India raised prices of diesel, kerosene and cooking gas in June.
Food makes up more than 30 per cent of inflation indexes on average in Asia, according to Rabobank Groep NV, making the region's economies vulnerable to swings in agriculture costs.