Indra Nooyi is an inspirational figure in India, having risen to the position of PepsiCo CEO, and becoming (according to Fortune) the most powerful woman CEO in the world. She is a fascinating person in her own right, and a great symbol of globalism.
So you would think a visit to Dehli for Nooyi would be a tour of triumph. Not according to the International Herald Tribune:
Unfortunately, the timing of her return could not have been worse. She walked straight into a dispute about the evils of junk food, arriving just as India’s health minister, Anbumani Ramadoss, announced that he planned to ban colas and greasy snacks in schools because they were ruining the health of the nation’s children.
In a powerful speech days before Nooyi’s arrival, Ramadoss warned that the wealthy middle classes were facing a “galloping” rise in obesity, heart disease and diabetes. He promised to introduce compulsory yoga in schools along with classes on healthy eating.
Moving beyond the allegations of insecticide contamination, which have shaken sales of both Coke and Pepsi in India for the past five months, he added firmly that “with or without pesticides” colas were “harmful for health and should not be consumed.”
It was a rude welcome for the visiting celebrity. Nooyi fought back bravely, stressing that PepsiCo wanted to work with the Indian government to combat “the prevailing sedentary lifestyle,” which she identified as the root cause of obesity-related illnesses. She announced that her company’s “Fun for You” products (colas and snacks) would be balanced by its “Good for You” line (waters and energy drinks). But the expected exuberance of this trip was dampened by the controversy.
The deeper and more tragic irony is that just as India faces an obesity crisis, it continues to struggle to feed its children. According to Ramadoss, 50-60 percent of Indian children are malnourished.
Certainly, the American stereotype of India has shifted quickly from that of desperate poverty to one of outsourced efficiency and business success. But with success comes the cycle of workaholism, two-income families, the increased reliance on food you can grab off a convenience store shelf or get through a drive-thru window, and all the health problems that come with living that way.
Ramadoss made it clear that his strategy for tackling India’s new weight problem would be to target precisely the products Nooyi was in Delhi to sell. He conceded that there might be “legal hindrances” with introducing a blanket ban on colas and chips in schools, and he proposed introducing a system of fines and penalties instead.
Health experts welcomed Ramadoss’s decision to highlight the growing problem of obesity in India.
Ambrish Mithal, senior doctor at an obesity center run by Apollo, a private hospital in Delhi, said that by conservative estimates at least 30 percent of women and 20 percent of men in urban areas were already clinically obese, although some experts put the real figure at closer to two-thirds of women.
“Malnutrition continues to be the bane of India, but the people who matter in this country are affected by the opposite problem,” he said. “The worst sufferers are the people working in the multinationals in urban India; they make up the new work force driving the nation’s economy, working to put India on the world map. A vital component of our manpower will become sick if steps are not taken to address this.”
A world of meaning in the doctor’s use of the phrase “the people who matter in this country.” Certainly, Nooyi’s company has picked up his not-subtle message about whose problems count the most. PepsiCo will be investing $500 million in India over the next five years, “part of which will go to building a new research center outside Delhi, where scientists will work on concocting low- calorie and low-caffeine drinks,” according to the IHT.