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Handcuffing junk food: Whipping the police into shape

The police chief in the capital of Andaman and Nicobar had a theory: If the boss was watching his officers’ weight, they would too

Handcuffing junk food: Whipping the police into shape
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For G. Chitra, an officer in India’s overburdened police forces, pretty much everything in her life is bad for her health. Working irregular hours is a source of stress. Standing guard for long periods hurts her knees. Caring for a toddler late at night and rising at 4:30 a.m. for household chores leaves her tired. Yet there she was in her bedroom one spring evening, polishing off 10 push-ups, 30 squats and a bit of yoga, before grabbing red dumbbells and flinging her arms skyward like a bird opening its wings to fly. She had felt bloated of late, and decided to do something about it.

In India, a country historically undernourished, many people are now packing on the pounds, and police officers are no exception. But in the island territory of Andaman and Nicobar, where Chitra serves, police have declared creamy curries, oily paneer and carb-rich dosas Enemy No. 1, and instead have embraced diet discipline and physical fitness in the ranks. The push for healthier officers extends beyond these distant islands, which a government health survey found was the heaviest place in India. In the northern state of Punjab, a court barred overweight cops from conducting raids on bootleggers and drug peddlers because they could not run fast enough to nab them.

But the effort in Andaman and Nicobar, where the Bay of Bengal meets the Andaman Sea, is unique in its scale. Satyendra Garg, the veteran officer and health evangelist behind the drive, hopes to make it a model for precincts across the country. “It’s a lovely place on the sea,” Garg said of the islands, which are a natural treasure of India, with sparkling lagoons and hundreds of rare bird species. “Why should people be unhealthy and obese here?” As Garg sees it, healthy living — and strict discipline — is essential to good policing. When he took over as police chief in Andaman and Nicobar in 2020, he enacted a zero-tolerance policy toward corrupt officials and suspended officers for absenteeism and excessive drinking.

Then he turned to matters of the flesh. He measured the weight-to-height ratios of all 4,304 deployed personnel and determined that nearly 50% were either overweight or obese.

Initially, he intended to personally counsel each of the hundreds of obese officers, imparting what he had learned about health science while suffering from a liver ailment.

He dropped that plan because of the pandemic, instead taking two of the heaviest officers under his wing, hoping that their weight loss journeys would inspire the rest. In a hierarchical force, where those at the bottom care about what is important to the boss, his thinking was that the officers would watch their weight because their leader was watching their weight. So began the physical transformation of Johnie Watson, 34, an officer in Port Blair, the territory’s capital city.

recent evening, Watson was busy counting calories. Three pieces of fish, beans and some potatoes. Two chapatis, instead of five, with a spoonful of lard. Black coffee rather than the sugary milk tea he consumed for years.

A year ago, he weighed 231 pounds. He had trouble squatting in Indian-style latrines and could not run fast enough to catch poachers who hunt deer, lizards and sea cucumbers. Now, he is down to 189 pounds and is working to lose 35 more. His blood pressure is back to normal, and his waist has shrunk 4 inches. Friends have stopped calling him “baby elephant.” Instead, they ask for weight-loss tips. “My old Johnie is back,” said his wife, Jenifer, looking at him affectionately during dinner. He isn’t always perfect. One day, as he stood guard outside a building where election ballots were being secured, he skipped lunch because he had to remain on standby during a cyclone warning. He instead grabbed a samosa, cheating on the diet recommended by Garg.

In an interview, Garg said he understood the pressures of law enforcement. The Indian police force is estimated to have only three-fourths of the officers it needs. On average, they work 14 hours a day. A large majority of officers believe that their workload is affecting their physical and mental health, surveys have found.

Stress is a recurrent theme in discussions of officers’ well-being. On one rainy day, more than 100 officers had lined up in an open-air gymnasium, sucking in their bellies as they had their measurements taken. A team of doctors scribbled down their metabolic readings and handed them questionnaires about their stress levels. Also thrown in: queries about the style of leadership they preferred, whether they felt anxiety over proving themselves and any problems they had encountered with bureaucratic red tape.

Ultimately, said Garg, who is retiring in June, he wants to pull together enough data so that policymakers can develop a program for police stations around India.

Some officers said they were just happy to have passed the physical test. “We can now breathe easy,” whispered one heavyset officer, exhaling when Garg walked out of the room. “Sir has left.” Chitra, the officer who did a workout in her bedroom while leaving fish to simmer in a sauce of kokum and coconut for her family, said the police chief’s initiative was “the first time someone showed concern about our health in such a way.”

Chitra, who is in her early 30s, joined the force in 2016 for the job security. But, like many others, she has struggled with the irregular hours and uncertainty over when she could take time off. “Twenty-four/seven, we have to be on call,” she said. “Our duty hours prevent us from taking care of our health. Mentally, we cannot set a schedule which we can follow daily.” Her overstuffed life means she can eke out only two days of exercise per week. Still, she said, it’s a start.

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