Kerala finance minister Thomas Isaac defended the new tax imposed on Western food items in Kerala even as it became clear that move could be open to a challenge on the lines on which Maharashtra’s beef ban was overturned.
The communists of Kerala — not the biggest fans of American culture — imposed the ban on select fast food items in their first budget after coming to power earlier this year.
The items on which a punitive 14.5% tax has been levied are burgers, pizzas, doughnuts, sandwiches and pasta, even if these are being served in by a roadside vendor.
The ostensible reason for the tax is that these food items tend to make people fat and are therefore unhealthy and need to be discouraged. However, the claim falls short on several grounds.
First, the consumption of the above items in Kerala is negligible and confined to the cities. They perhaps account for less than 1% of the total fat found on Malayali bodies.
Other food items, including traditional fare such as ghee rice, biriyani, fried snacks and red meat — particularly beef — contribute much more to making Malayalis fat compared to tacos and burgers — which many in the state may not have tasted even once in their lives.
Not surprisingly, charges are being leveled that the Left front is trying to impose its anti-American cultural prejudice on the whole population.
The accusation is similar to the one that the Left successfully used against the BJP in the context of the ban on beef in Maharashtra. While the beef ban was seen as the imposition of Brahmanical culture on people’s food habits, the imposition of punitive taxes on only American snacks is being seen as the imposition of Left’s anti-Americanism on the Malayali palate.
The second interpretation is more cynical. Some believe that the fat tax is a cheap political stunt to tap into the rising anti-American sentiments among certain sections of the society. A large part of Kerala society increasingly sees the US as an aggressor trying to meddle in the affairs of other countries, especially in the Middle East.
Reacting to the controversy, Finance Minister Thomas Isaac clarified that the idea of a tax on the above Western food items was suggested by Muhammad Kabeer, who used to be a teacher at Center for Development Studies, Trivandrum. He also said the tax will collect no more than Rs 10 cr in a year, and said there were no other aims for it than to discourage unhealthy food items.
It remains to be seen if someone — most probably a multinational chain like McDonalds or KFC — goes to the court to challenge the ban on grounds of discrimination.
For now, comrade Isaac is busy convincing people the move does not stem from any antipathy towards the US — a country that the Left parties in India have spend decades feelings paranoid about.
“The intention behind the move is not to mobilize funds, but to draw attention to unhealthy food habits among Keralites,” he said in a Facebook post. “The controversy generated by the move indicates that we have succeeded in this endeavor.”
On the criticism that the move spares bigger culprits such as the maida parota — a staple in the state’s restaurants — Isaac said the government was open to expanding the ambit of the ‘fat tax’ going forward.
“It is not time to impose such a tax on food items consumed by ordinary folk,” he said. “Unlike in the west, such items (as sandwiches and burgers) are consumed by well off people in Kerala (who can afford to pay more),” he added.