For G Chitra, an officer in India’s overworked police force, just about everything in his life is bad for his health. Working irregular hours is stressful. Standing guard for long periods hurts his knees. Looking after a toddler late at night and getting up at 4:30 a.m. for household chores is tiring.
Yet there she was in her bedroom one spring evening, doing 10 push-ups, 30 squats and a bit of yoga, before grabbing some red dumbbells and throwing her arms skyward like a bird opening its wings to fly. She had been feeling bloated lately and had decided to do something about it.
In India, a historically undernourished country, many people are now gaining weight and police officers are no exception. But in the Andaman and Nicobar island territory, where Chitra serves, police have declared creamy curries, oily paneer and high-carb dosas Enemy No 1, and instead embraced food discipline and physical fitness in the ranks.
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The push for healthier officers extends beyond these remote islands, which a government health survey found were the heaviest place in India. In the northern state of Punjab, a court banned overweight police officers from carrying out raids on smugglers and drug dealers because they couldn’t run fast enough to catch 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 role model for constituencies across the country.
“It’s a beautiful place on the sea,” Garg said of the islands, which are India’s natural treasure, with sparkling lagoons and hundreds of rare bird species. “Why should people be unhealthy and obese here?”
According to Garg, healthy living – and strict discipline – is essential to good policing. When he took over as police chief in Andaman and Nicobar in 2020, he adopted a zero-tolerance policy for corrupt officials and suspended officers for absenteeism and excessive alcohol consumption.
Then he turned to the business of the flesh. He measured the weight-to-height ratios of all 4,304 deployed personnel and determined that almost 50% were overweight or obese.
Initially, he intended to personally counsel each of the hundreds of obese officers, imparting to them what he had learned about health sciences while suffering from liver disease.
He scrapped that plan because of the pandemic, instead taking two of the heaviest officers under his wing, hoping their weight loss journeys would inspire the rest. In a line force, where those below care about what’s important to the boss, his thought was that officers would watch their weight because their leader watched their weight.
Thus began the physical transformation of Johnie Watson, 34, an officer in Port Blair, the territory’s capital.
One recent evening, Watson was busy counting calories. Three pieces of fish, beans and potatoes. Two chapatis, instead of five, with a spoonful of lard. Black coffee rather than the sweet milk tea he’s been drinking for years.
A year ago, he weighed 231 pounds. He struggled to squat in Indian-style latrines and couldn’t run fast enough to catch poachers hunting deer, lizards and sea cucumbers.
Now he weighs just 189 pounds and is working to lose 35 more. His blood pressure returned to normal and his height decreased by 4 inches. His friends stopped calling him “baby elephant”. Instead, they ask for weight loss tips.
“My old Johnie is back,” said his wife, Jenifer, looking at him fondly over dinner.
It’s not always perfect. One day, while standing guard outside a building where ballots were secured, he skipped lunch because he had to stand by during a cyclone warning. He grabbed a samosa instead, cheating on Garg’s recommended diet.
That evening, he and another colleague monitoring his weight went to a weekly counseling session.
“Are you eating more protein and less carbs? Garg asked Watson.
“Yes, sir, I am,” Watson said with a straight face.
His boss urged him to increase his intake of healthy fats and eat dinner at least five hours before bed. Watson said he struggled to stop eating sweets but eventually succeeded.
In an interview, Garg said he understands the pressures from law enforcement. India’s police are estimated to have only three-quarters of the officers they need. On average, they work 14 hours a day. A large majority of officers believe their workload affects their physical and mental health, according to surveys.
Stress is a recurring theme in discussions of police welfare. One rainy day, more than 100 officers had lined up in an outdoor gymnasium, vacuuming their bellies as they had their measurements taken. A team of doctors scribbled down their metabolic readings and gave them questionnaires about their stress levels.
Also added: questions about their preferred leadership style, whether they felt anxiety about proving themselves, and problems they had with bureaucratic paperwork.
Ultimately, said Garg, who is retiring in June, he wants to gather enough data for policymakers to develop an agenda for police stations in India.
Some officers said they were just happy to have passed the physical test.
“We can now breathe easy,” a burly officer whispered, exhaling as Garg exited the room. “Monsieur has left.”
Chitra, the officer who exercised in his room while simmering fish in kokum and coconut sauce for his family, said the police chief’s initiative was “the first time that someone cared about our health in this way”.
Chitra, who is in her early 30s, joined the force in 2016 for job security. But, like many others, she struggled with irregular hours and the uncertainty of when she could take time off.
“Twenty-four/seven, we have to be on call,” she said. “Our hours of service prevent us from taking care of our health. Mentally, we cannot set a schedule that we can follow on a daily basis.
Her overloaded life means she can only exercise two days a week.
Still, she says, it’s a start.