Food and drink | Food: India's Kerala state puts pizzas in ‘fat tax’ fire

Food: India’s Kerala state puts pizzas in ‘fat tax’ fire

Raja Murthy July 14, 2016 8:51 AM (UTC+8)
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In a flash nightmare for multi-billion dollar behemoths Dominoes and McDonalds et all, the southern Indian state of Kerala has slammed a “fat tax” on fast food like pizzas, burgers and tacos, doughnuts, sandwiches and pasta.

Kerala – with its official tagline “God’s own country” – joined European countries like Finland that since 2011 imposed extra taxes on chocolate, candies, cocoa-based products and ice cream. The same year Hungary’s taxmen took a larger cut from pre-packed sweetened products. France in 2012 imposed a sugar tax on all beverages with added sugar and artificial sweeteners. None of these EU countries though dared punish pizzas.

Some might sigh this is retribution and inevitable karma at work – given the 400%-plus cost difference between a homemade pizza and a Dominoes version.

The fate-ish “fat tax” of 14.5% is being imposed on branded restaurants like Dominoes, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Subway selling pop food like pizzas, burgers, tacos, doughnuts, sandwiches, pasta, burger patty and bread-filling.

Pizza Hut, Trivandrum, Kerala
Pizza Hut, Trivandrum, Kerala

Taxing times

The anti-pizza budget was the first by the new Kerala government that was elected to power in the May assembly polls. The unhappy “fat tax” is expected to offer dubious relief to a state struggling under a severe financial crunch.The local government hopes to increase overall revenue by 25%, and apparently needs every rupee going to fund development and infrastructure projects like bridges, roads and IT parks.

The interesting crucial fact I noticed that has escaped the Kerala government and media reporting the news is that 100 g of a margarita pizza contains 218 calories while 100 g of coconut has 354 calories. And nearly every traditional Kerala dish is rich in coconut and coconut oil. Pizza Inc. and Pasta Corp. lawyers can duly note: Not tenable to impose a “fat tax” on pizzas while leaving alone the even more fattening coconut oil.

Kerala has put the proverbial fat in the fire with its new tax, given the increasing stakes in India’s pizza industry. Just one major player, Dominoes for instance, opened its 1,000th pizza outlet in India in February 2016. Dominoes plans to open 150 new stores a year in India for the next two years, according to the Wall Street Journal. India is the world’s second largest pizza market after the USA. Over 120 million branded pizzas are sold in India each year.

“The move is business-unfriendly. It calls out the organized, eating out sector. We cannot pass the burden entirely to consumers,” Pizza Hut managing director Unnat Varma complained to the Economic Times, as indignant fast food industry chieftains protested this sudden tax assault.

Pizza, India style
Pizza: India style

Italian connection?

In some careless strategy, the opposition Congress party promptly protested the “fat tax” move, making it vulnerable to cheap counterattacks that the Congress is pro-pizzas owing to its long-debated Italian connection. But quite likely, as is usual in life’s ironies, poor Mrs. Sonia Gandhi probably hates pizzas and prefers India’s deliciously healthy poha or masala dosas as her favorite snack-meal. The Congress though might have won over Kerala’s younger populace and India’s urban restaurant industry for which life without pizzas is like a movie theater without popcorn.

And if the pizza issue pops up in parliament, pro-pizza political leaders would argue the pizza is now Indian – Pizza Hut’s popular ‘Tandoori Paneer (cottage cheese) pizza’ is entirely more at home near Mumbai’s Sterling cinema than at New York’s Di Fara in Brooklyn or Rome’s iconic Pinsere pizzas in Via Flavia. Or they can present the coconut calorie fact that Asia Times has provided, in clinching comparison.

Quite unbelievable that pizzas should emerge prominent enough in India to be propelled into political skirmishes. My first view of a pizza was as a little kid happily devouring Dennis the Menace comics – Dennis liked Gina whose mother made the best pizzas in the neighborhood, and I don’t think there was a single pizza vendor in the sub-continent then in the 1970s.

Now global pizza and pasta chains like Dominoes and Pizza Hut have hundreds of outlets in each city. Pizzas in the past year have even become an essential part of Mumbai’s street food; I can offhand count 10 pizza outlets within a five-minute walking distance from where this article is being written in Churchgate, South Mumbai.

Homemade pizzas have become serious affairs too, as I noted with amazement during my visit to Chennai this January, and catching up with old school friends after nearly three decades. Pizzas were never part of eating out menus for Don Bosco Egmore’s Class of ’85, but I was happily startled to find a full-fledged pizzeria dome oven in Tanseer Ahmed’s house – actually a separate pizza room next to the kitchen — and him hospitably rolling out professional pizzas complete with homemade dough, pizza sauce, with an authentic Pizza Peel just as in a pizzeria. Tanseer though had studied in Milan during his college days, and Italy’s most popular export seems to have turned him into a profound pizza disciple for life.

Tanseer’s little daughter was solemnly chewing a pizza slice for dinner while playing with her smartphone, and in years to come, woe betide any politician who messes about with her favorite source of sustenance and then comes asking for her vote.

And yes, this was written after dutifully feasting on margarita for dinner, as unplanned, unintended support for the pizza faithful in “God’s own country.”

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

Raja Murthy
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist based in Mumbai contributing to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly for Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.
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