Metrolife: New study questions vegetarian numbers

For a country traditionally perceived as vegetarian, India is in denial. A new study by US-based anthropologist Balmurli Natrajan and India-based economist Suraj Jacob has found vegetarianism less pervasive than previously reported. They suspect the numbers are ‘inflated’ because of cultural and political pressures. 

Away from the furore that the report caused, Rajitha Menon asks the professors what the findings mean to Indian society. 

Why is such a survey important now?

In India, particular foods have become politicised by becoming identity-markers for communities. Our study is important for three reasons. Firstly, it establishes an evidence-based baseline for evaluating any claims about food habits of individuals and groups. Secondly, it raises the intellectual level of public discourse by complicating and demolishing some myths about the extent of vegetarianism, meat-eating, and beef-eating in particular. Thirdly, it questions stereotypes of all religious and caste groups, and brings class and gender into the debate about food.

Is non-vegetarianism a growing trend or is it just becoming more visible?

Our study used three separate (but not directly comparable) large-scale surveys that were taken at one point in time, so we cannot extrapolate a time trend directly from it.

What could be some of the reasons for the growing incidence of meat-eating in India?

Since we do not know the time trend, it would be inappropriate to ask the ‘why’ question. However, as a general observation, one could argue that many social and cultural practices are changing through processes of travel, wider exposure and globalisation, and these might work in favour of greater meat-eating. However, one must also recognise that there are counter-trends, like the growing cultural politics valourising vegetarianism.

With a number of studies highlighting the benefits of a meat-free diet, the trend is growing among the highly educated?

Perhaps the problem is not meat-eating or meat-avoidance (vegetarianism), but rather that industrial meat production causes environmental and health damage, and puritanical Brahmanical vegetarianism that stigmatises meat. Human populations survive well on eating what is locally available — be it only vegetables and roots, or mixed with some meat, fish and eggs.

What are some of the strongest reasons for changing one’s food habits?

Individuals are agents of their own histories but only under conditions that are not of their own choosing. This means individuals may choose what they eat based on taste, availability, affordability — and we see this mostly when young men and women leave their homes for study or work and live far away from their families. But individuals also face pressures to conform to community codes by family members and community leaders, many of whom are self-appointed monitors and ‘moral police’. So as long as we have communalism and casteism in India, individuals will suffer the burden of community exercised through control over their food habits.

What are your thoughts about some traditionally vegetarian neighbourhoods in Bengaluru seeing an increase in non-vegetarian eateries?

It is a good thing for diversity and multiculturalism in India for people to live next to others who are different. This is perhaps one way that segregation in housing and provincialisation of minds will be challenged.

Any aspect of the survey that surprised you the most?

Three aspects surprised us the most. Firstly, the enormous diversity in food practices in India. We found that the greatest variation in the incidence of meat-eating and meat-avoidance is across regions and states, and not across rural-urban or mega -caste categories. 

There is a very clear gender gap – incidence of meat-eating among women is about 10 percentage points less meat than among men, and this gender gap is stable across mega-caste categories and the rural-urban divide. This suggests that where meat-eating is stigmatised, men exercise greater moral impunity than women and have greater ‘flexibility’ from norms in a patriarchal context, with the ‘tradition’ of vegetarianism falling disproportionately on women.

Present-day cultural politics of divisiveness that stigmatises meat-eating (and particularly beef-eating) impact cultural norms of particular communities in ‘unnatural ways’. They create fears and curtail freedom in exercising choice over food practices and their articulation. For instance, for specific mega-groups such as SCs and Muslims, our data analysis reveals that cultural-political pressures do significantly affect reported food practices.

What the study found

Indians are vegetarian —way fewer than what common claims and stereotypes suggest.

Hindus are major meat-eaters. Only a third of privileged, upper-caste Indians are vegetarian.

The prevalence of beef-eating is considerably under-reported. Government data claims only seven percent of Indians eat beef. The study estimates that close to 180 million people or about 15 percent eat beef.

SOUTH vs NORTH

Contrary to Chennai’s image of preferring vegetarian dishes such as ‘curd rice’, the study says only six percent of the city is vegetarian. Punjab’s fondness for chicken is also hyped. More than 75 percent of the people there are vegetarian.

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