PORT BLAIR, India — For G. Chitra, an officer in India’s overburdened police forces, almost everything in her life is bad for her health. Working irregular hours is a source of stress. Standing on guard for a long time hurts her knees. If she takes care of a toddler late at night and gets up at 4:30 am for household chores, she gets tired.
Yet there one spring evening in her bedroom, she was practicing 10 pushups, 30 squats and a little yoga, before grabbing red dumbbells and waving her arms to the sky like a bird opening its wings to fly. She had been feeling bloated lately and decided to do something about it.
In India, a country historically malnourished, many people are now putting on the weight, and police officers are no exception. But in the island territory of Andaman and Nicobar, where Mrs. Chitra, the police have declared creamy curries, oily paneer and carbohydrate-rich dosas enemy No. 1 and instead embraced dietary discipline and physical fitness in the ranks.
The push for healthier officers extends beyond these distant islands, which were the toughest place in India, according to a government health survey. In the northern state of Punjab, a court banned overweight officers from raiding smugglers and drug traffickers 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 scope. Satyendra Garg, the veteran officer and health evangelist behind the drive, hopes to make it a model for districts across the country.
“It’s a lovely place by the sea,” said Mr. Garg over the islands, which are a natural treasure of India, with glittering lagoons and hundreds of rare bird species. “Why would people here be unhealthy and obese?”
As Mr. Garg sees it, a healthy life – and strict discipline – is essential to good police work. When he took over the post of police chief in Andaman and Nicobar in 2020, he implemented a zero-tolerance policy towards corrupt officials and suspended officers for absenteeism and excessive alcohol consumption.
Then he turned to matters of the flesh. He measured the weight-to-height ratios of all 4,304 deployed personnel and found that nearly 50 percent were overweight or obese.
Initially, he planned to personally counsel each of the hundreds of obese officers, sharing what he had learned about health sciences while suffering from liver disease.
He dropped that plan due to the pandemic and instead took two of the toughest officers under his wing, hoping their weight loss journeys would inspire the rest. In a hierarchical power, where the people at the bottom care about what’s important to the boss, he thought the officers would watch their weight because their leader watches their weight.
Thus began the physical transformation of Johnie Watson, 34, an officer in Port Blair, the area’s capital.
One recent evening, Mr. Watson was counting calories. Three pieces of fish, beans and some potatoes. Two chapatis, instead of five, with a spoonful of lard. Black coffee instead of the sweet milk tea he consumed for years.
A year ago he weighed 231 pounds. He struggled to crouch in Indian-style latrines and couldn’t run fast enough to catch poachers hunting deer, lizards and sea cucumbers.
Now he has dropped to 189 pounds and is working on losing 35 more. His blood pressure is back to normal and his waist has shrunk four inches. Friends no longer call him “baby elephant.” Instead, they ask for weight loss tips.
“My old Johnie is back,” said his wife, Jenifer, as she looked at him lovingly over dinner.
He’s not always perfect. One day, while on guard outside a ballot-securing building, he skipped lunch because he had to stand by during a cyclone warning. Instead, he grabbed a samosa and cheated on Mr. Garg’s recommended diet.
That evening, he and another co-worker who was watching his weight attended a weekly counseling session.
“Do you have more protein and fewer carbohydrates?” mr. Garg asked Mr. Watson.
“Yes, sir, that’s me,” said Mr. Watson with a straight face.
His boss urged him to increase his intake of healthy fats and eat at least five hours before bed. Mr Watson said he had struggled to stop eating sweets, but he finally succeeded.
In an interview, Mr. Garg that he understood the pressures of law enforcement. The Indian Police Service is estimated to have only three quarters of the officers they need. They work an average of 14 hours a day. A large majority of officers believe their workload affects their physical and mental health, according to studies.
Stress is a recurring theme in discussions about the well-being of agents. On a rainy day, more than 100 officers lined up in an open-air gymnasium, sucking their bellies in while having their measurements taken. A team of doctors scribbled their metabolic values and handed them questionnaires about their stress levels.
Also added: questions about the style of leadership they preferred, whether they were afraid to prove themselves, and any problems they had encountered with red tape.
Ultimately, said Mr Garg, who will retire in June, wants to collect enough data so that policymakers can develop a program for police stations across India.
Some officers said they were just glad they passed the physical test.
“We can breathe easy now,” a heavyset officer whispered, exhaling as Mr. Garg left the room. “Sir has left.”
Ms. Chitra, the officer who was training in her bedroom while she simmered fish for her family in a kokum and coconut sauce, said the police chief’s initiative was “the first time anyone had behaved in such a way.” worried about our health.”
Ms. Chitra, who is in her early 30s, joined in 2016 for job security. But, like many others, she struggled with the irregular hours and uncertainty about when she would be able to take time off.
“Twenty-four-twenty-seven, we must be on call,” she said. “Our working hours prevent us from taking care of our health. Mentally, we cannot set up a schedule that we can follow on a daily basis.”
Due to her busy life, she can only exercise two days a week.
Still, she said, it’s a start.