Friday, March 21, 2008

Why Is Modern India Vegetarian?



The incident in HCU*, made us wonder about the much larger questions of food and nutrition in India, and how that, in more ways than one, relates in to the religion and caste. It is common knowledge, that Indian cuisine is as diverse as it comes. It is also common knowledge that certain types of food are considered taboo by some and relished by some. How many times have we seen vegetarians look at a meat loaded plate, crinkle their nose, and say, “Erguh! How do you eat that stuff?” How many times have we watched friends eat beef on the sly, because their mothers would “kill them if they found out.” Close home, in campus, when beef was prepared for the participants observing fast for Ramzaan, why was it a hushed up affair?

We are quick to judge some food as bad, unhealthy, and hence, a bad thing. Going by the HCU incident, some food are even considered “contagious”. Dislikes that stem primarily because one is used to a different kind and mode of cooking food, quickly converts into legitimising that dislike in terms of hygiene and health. But have we ever questioned the legitimacy of the standards that we are using to reach these conclusions?

This skewed hierarchy of food is not a result of a recent campaign, but something much simpler, and much more older. “…country can be said to have achieved complete food and nutrition security if each and every person in that country is able to consume a minimum quantum and quality of various ingredients of what I would like to call 'an adequate and balanced diet' on a regular basis,” reads a report ‘Indian Experience on Household Food and Nutritional Security’ by N.P. Nawani. But what constitutes this “balanced diet” is a matter of furious debate.

In India, this balanced diet is measured by the Recommended Dietary Allowance or the RDA, for various age groups, including special groups like infants, nursing mothers and so on. And this measure is not only for nutritional requirements, but also becomes an economic one. Says the Nawani report, “Availability and affordability of such diet, backed by health and educational services in an environmentally sustainable scenario will then enable each member of the society to live a 'good' life; each individual personality getting an opportunity to flower to one's full potential.” RDA thus has direct ramifications on the status of poverty, in determining the per capita incomes that will enable a person to achieve daily intake of the required 2400 K.Cal, and consequentially the minimum wages

The root of the problem, as Veena Shatrugna, Director, National Institute of Nutrition, points out, is one-sided diet itself, that was loaded with cereals—then seen as the cheapest, and the most easily available source of calories. Consequently, this decision, in turn affected the minimum daily wages, the determination of the poverty line, and not to mention, making the Public Distribution System what it is today, i.e. a machinery doling out rice and wheat at cheap rates, but no meat, egg or nuts, or any non-vegetarian food at all. So in a country where vegetarians are a definite minority, we now plan our daily meals based on a notion of a Brahminical notion of a “easily available, balanced diet”, and the cultural production of modern India as vegetarian. This was fine for the upper castes rich, who had the luxury of eating 3-4 kinds of vegetables, and other supplements like nuts, oil etc., along with their rice, but for the poor, this meant serious lack of vital sources of energy. So if the poor man got his plate of rice, and 3 rotis a day, he was expected to be happy and satisfied. The result? We survived, but barely.


The question that now arises is why the nutritionists, and the bureaucrats did not look at alternate sources of proteins, more importantly meat proteins, which, as Dr. Veena Shatrugna, points out, is not just widely consumed, but also highly recommended for anaemic populations such as Indians? Why was there no acknowledgement of differences in cuisines and the palette? The answer seems simple enough, the bureaucrats took the average Indian diet, but the average Indian that they had in mind, was not the majority who ate meat, but the dominant upper class minority. What was an alternative became the norm. The food that the various tribes used eat, says Dr. Shatrugna, was never analysed for its nutrient content. So while we romanticised their customs, did detailed anthropological investigation on how they lived and how they married, there is very little research to evaluate what they eat, and how their food, or the lack of thereof is affecting their health, growth, child birth or birth weight of their children.

The result? 41.9% of adults belonging to the ST and 38.4 % belonging to SCs have Chronic Energy Deficiency, while the pooled average of the nation is 34.8 %. Further, 62.7 % of the children born to Scheduled Caste parents are under-weight, 57.6 % are stunted, while among the other castes it the numbers are 53.1 % and 50.1 %

The women suffer more. Most studies and recommendations are made with the modern working class male, as the average and the requirements of the women are appropriated accordingly. Questions such as different working style, responsibilities, and requirements of the women are not taken into consideration. The birth weight in the low socio-economic groups have not increased significantly since the past 50 years. There pharmaceuticals rally to supplement women with iron, various multi-vitamins during pregnancy, but with no significant impact. NGOs, and activists blame the man- he eats first, the woman is left with the leftovers, but the problem is much simpler, says Dr. Shatrugna. “The low socio-economic groups get 80% of their proteins from cereal. In a scenario where there is not enough food to eat, where is the point in asking the women to eat first?”

What we need now is to a second look at the standards that we have put in place. The items of food that were delegitimised by the RDA—flesh food, egg, etc., must be allowed to become a part of the daily diet of people of all economic strata. The argument that it is beyond the means of the lower caste man, just does not hold. Egg is cheaper than vegetables, then why is egg not distributed via the PDS? Why are we raising a huge outcry over culture and heritage when eggs are being given out under the mid-day meal scheme? Why is eating beef against any religion?

The questions of why food becomes aligned to religion and caste, may still be unanswered. However, in a society that has claims to equality in opportunities and preferences, we need to realise that caste does not work in its open manifestations of discrimination and repression alone.
(Certain students who wanted to put up a beef stall in campus for one of the fest, where prevented from doing so. One of the arguement for the move was that beef is unhealthy. The Dalit Students' Union apporached Dr. Veena Shatrugna for clarity on the nutritional values of beef, and were given a letter certifying that beef was indeed neither unhealthy, nor "contagious".)
Also read Dunkin Jalki's article on food habits in student hostel messes
Thank you James for the links

36 comments:

James Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Michael said...

Hello Guys,
Since you are talking about food habits, it would have been better if you had referred to this specific article written by Dunkin Jalki who was doing his Phd here.
His is an analysis of food habits in student hostel messes etc.
If you can give it as a main link in the article itself and give a brief introduction to it.
It would definetly "beef" up your article.
James.

The article link is: www.ambedkar.org/research/food.pdf

James Michael said...

I am pasting an excerpt from S. Anand's, a brahmin, reflection on meat eating. The full text of the article entitled "Notes on my Brahmin Self" can be accessed from
http://insightjnu.blogspot.com/

The excerpt:
The second crucial change effected in my personal self was with respect to food habits. The family I was born into ate only vegetarian food. Egg, boiled, was a rare indulgence, that too as a dietary supplement since I played tennis during my childhood. This too had to be done secretively by my mother without my grandparents coming to know of it. I knew how to cook, partly because I helped my mother, and handled kitchen duties whenever she menstruated. After marriage, it was I who cooked and was in charge of the kitchen. In our early days in Chennai, when my partner sought to eat meat, mostly chicken, she would buy it from hotels. At her behest, I used to try it occasionally, but did not enjoy the taste. Since I approached the issue politically, I understood that my inability to appreciate the taste of meat owed not to an inherent, ‘natural’ repugnance to it, but rather to the fact of my lack of exposure to its taste. For the first eighteen years of my life, my tongue had been colonised by vegetarian home food. In my six years of hostel life, I was too conservative and brahminical to have tried meat. Most crucially, I was not politically conscious those days. Not liking the idea of my partner having to buy oily meat from hotels, I decided that I would at least cook it at home. Soon, I began tasting it. Over the years, I have come to really enjoy it and realise what I had been missing all these years. What really got me hooked to the taste of meat was my liking for kebabs—burnt mutton. (In 2003, I also savoured succulent beef kebabs at Bade Miyan in Mumbai thanks to my friend Sharmila.) Since 2001, I have turned quite a decent meat-eater. Yet, nonbrahmin friends would point to how I am a bit clumsy in my inability to clean up the bones dry. Today, we cook mutton, beef, all kinds of seafood and chicken at home. I have not yet conquered pork, though I love bacon the way it is served continental style.
Eating meat should hardly be considered a means of running away from one’s brahminic identity. Historically, the brahmins consumed all kinds of meat—including beef. Pulao made of veal (tender calf) was a delicacy served to the guests during the vedic period. It was only Buddhism that forced the brahmins to swing to the other extreme and give up on meat altogether. Just as my dalit friends who rediscover and revert to Buddhism, and hence turn vegetarian, are not ceasing to be dalits by refusing to eat meat, I would not cease to be a brahmin my merely eating meat. It is not a certificate of progressiveness or regressiveness. But when the choice of not eating or not eating certain foods is not based on self-made decisions but based on irrationally inherited caste culture, then as rational human beings we need to rethink and question the same.
Why this conscious effort at making, and now marking, these changes in my personal self? Do I want to pass for a nonbrahmin? Does one cease to be a brahmin just by speaking a different register and by eating different kinds of food? I have seen several brahmins in the modern, urban context assuming progressive postures—as liberals, marxists, feminists, poststructuralists, radicals of various hues. These are largely public postures. In the private sphere, they tend to remain true to their castes. They tend to marry within caste (even accidentally falling in love with a person of the same caste), sometimes even go through traditional marriage rituals and justify it as meant to satisfy parents/ relations, they even indulge in some rituals for the dead, they continue to eat what they have been used to eating. In the personal sphere, the language of modernity takes a backseat and the premodern caste self is allowed a free reign. In other words, not much changes in their personal lives. My fundamental problem was: how can one don a progressive hat in public and continue to indulge in practices inflected by one’s caste in the personal realm? How can one be modern and feudal at the same time? I was convinced that the personal and political had to be made compatible and complementary. I could not be someone who keenly engaged with Ambedkar’s ideas, interacted with the dalit movement, benefited a lot intellectually from my interactions with dalit and nonbrahmin friends, and yet keep intact a brahminical core.

Srivatsan said...

I liked the juxtaposition of the interview with Veena Shatrugna and the personal narrative of S. Anand. There was an interesting way in which they talked to each other in my mind, bringing memories of my childhood together with a sort of Aha! understanding of so many automatic verbal and practical responses to meateating and cooking today.

Anonymous said...

There are a few things I don't understand:
- What is the relevance of S. Anand's article?
- Surely, in hostels and such, there are "forward" castes who are meat-eaters. I wonder why there has been no objection from that end.
- Is the issue in question the view, that in India, the vegetarian diet is the "default" diet?

Personally, I always thought that was true if you go by the kind of food even meat-eaters eat, say, during the week or for breakfast. Wasn't meat always seen as a luxury?
I guess I don't quite get why it is seen as the Brahmin view.

Suresh said...

If the thrust of your article is correct, then it suggests that under-nutrition of SC/ST/non-Brahmins is a post-independence phenomenon, or at least, post-Mughal phenomenon since the dominance of the Brahmin bureaucrats started with the British raj. Is there any evidence to suggest that under-nutrition was not a problem in the pre-British era when the rulers were mostly Muslim who presumably would not have any Brahmin hangups? I would even be satisfied with evidence suggesting that undernutrition became more of a problem in the post-independence era when the real dominance of the Brahmin bureaucrats started. Can you point me to some such evidence?

Your hypothesis also suggests that undernutrition should be much less of a problem in, say Bangladesh or Pakistan since they do not have to worry about Brahminical hangups. Also, the Bengali brahmins do eat fish. However, according to one World Bank report (link given below), in 2000, while 47% of under-fives suffered from underweight, 45% from stunting and 16% from wasting, the figures for Bangladesh was (48%, 45% and 10%) and Pakistan was (40%, 36% and 14%). While Pakistan is lower, it is not drastically so. (Remember also that current-day Pakistan was one of the richer parts of the subcontinent and indeed, until recently had a higher GDP per capita than India.) I would also note that Bangladesh has been one of the countries which has made drastic improvements in poverty reduction in recent years so more recent figures might show it in a more favourable light vis-a-vis India. At any rate, then, why are the figures for Bangladesh and Pakistan so high?

Your point about the need to provide a wider choice through the PDS is well-taken but I do wish you did not have to bring "Brahmin conspiracy" almost as a reflex. Anyway, for the link to where I got the figures:

http://siteresources.worldbank.org/SOUTHASIAEXT/Resources/223546-1147272668285/undernourished_chapter_1.pdf

Anonymous said...

A simple question, what is the logic behind referring to world bank data? is the world bank often glorifyingly referred in the social sciences nowadays?

Suresh said...

Dear Anonymous:

The proper response would be a link discrediting the data source. Do you have one? If not, then what's your point? Is this the best you can do?

The World Bank's policy prescriptions may be attacked by many people (including economists) but the Bank does contain a fair number of good economists, including many from India.

I now know where this is going to go...sigh...feel free to take shots at me.

rahul said...

..well I guess for the majority vegetarian is a default diet not by choice in our country....but for a lot of middle class and upper middle class who voluntarily become vegetarian it's more of aquestion of conscience, soul...they feel it's not right killing an animal for their gastronomical whims...also I personally think now-a days a lot of U.S. bred/educated hindus eat beef , for a rush of rebellion and not just for nutrients. The vedic hindu religion is way too broad minded for these things.

dj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Armchair Guy said...

"The answer seems simple enough, the bureaucrats took the average Indian diet, but the average Indian that they had in mind, was not the majority who ate meat, but the dominant upper class minority."

The explanation for the composition of the PDS items is not simple; it is unnecessarily complicated. I think the Indian PDS just sells items which are not perishable and easily transported, as it should. Meat would require refrigeration facilities. I don't think it has anything to with what the Brahmins eat.

Having said that, I think it would be a good idea to include some high-protein items such as protein bars. This could include animal proteins, but I think India is only now waking up to the benefits of food processing.

Dunkin said...

I saw my article being mentioned here. Thanks.

I also have written another article on the caste system recently. It can be found here: http://www.doccentre.net/docsweb/Understanding-Caste-System-Dunkin/1st-page-Intr\
oduction.php

Your opinion will be useful for me.

you can also write to me directly at dunkinjalki@yahoo.co.in

മലമൂട്ടില്‍ മത്തായി said...

The fact that a majority of Indians are under nourished remains. But then, meat eating alone will not reduce the effect.

PDS cannot distribute eggs or even vegetables because they are perishable. Given the lack of basic infrastructure in India, it is easy to know why the government sticks to distributing rice, pulses, sugar and oil. Here it is the lack of infrastructure which plays the role and not the caste.

That said, I am not for banning cow slaughter anywhere in India. Any one who wants to eat beef (which includes me) should get quality beef at cheap rates. That gives way to another question - if a majority wants beef, then why do they vote for folks who want to ban beef altogether?

Then there is the issue of opening a slaughter house on campus. That is simply unhygienic and unhealthy. Animals should be slaughtered in abattoirs only and the waste should be disposed off properly. So in the name of eating meat, do not condone the unhealthy trends.

So far as trends go, Indians are eating more meat now that their economic circumstances are better. As we develop more, people will eat more meat.

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