As pro-vegetarian and vegan narratives gain gumption in India, a closer look at the ethical, environmental, and social realities of this dialogue.
It has taken me a while to realise that I always knew what brunch was. After spending multiple Sundays, surrounded by food, bottomless mimosas, and friends, it dawned on me that I had already been part of several brunches growing up. Only that they looked, smelled, and tasted different at home.
On Sundays, I would wake up to a house dense with the smell of meat, and my mother’s signature garam masala. I remember sauntering into the kitchen, and watching her through groggy eyes, as she pored over the rolling pin, shaping parathas, while a huge cauldron of beef bhuna kept bubbling away on the stove. It’s a memory that will stay with me perhaps till the whole of my head turns grey.
That’s the thing about food—it is shared, social, political, and cultural, but in the end, also deeply personal. And it’s a fact we often seem to forget.
In 2020, shortly before our world turned upside down, my mother was visiting me for the first time in Mumbai. And so, she spent hours, arduously preparing all of my favourite dishes—beef bhuna and ghosht korma that, curiously, comes with the Bengali addition of aloo and beef fry. She had packed them all neatly inside saved takeout boxes, like memories I could store and savour as and when I please. But a day before her flight, I got frantic calls from family members, requesting me to talk her out of it. “She’s flying alone. Have you thought of what would happen if someone decided to create an issue about it?” my father said sternly. So, I complied. And that was that, in so far as this tale goes.
For some others still, the punishment has been far more severe than being denied a simple joy. A teacher in Assam, for example, was arrested for carrying beef to school for lunch in the month of May this year. In June 2021, Mathura in Uttar Pradesh saw a 50-year-old truck driver, Mohammad Shera, being shot dead by a mob that assumed he and his seven associates (who were also assaulted) were smuggling cows. A year before that, vigilantes in Mangalore, Karnataka, brutally beat up Md Hanif, because he was inside a tempo that was used for carrying cattle. In April, this year, right-wing groups in the same state, campaigned to boycott ‘halal’ meat. Other states that towed a similar line include Gujarat, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh.
In hindsight, I realise that it would have been callous not to listen to my father. I mean, there are so many instances of unsuspecting individuals being attacked because they eat meat, that there’s a dedicated Wikipedia page for it today. And it does beg the question if any of this is based on science, facts, or empirical data, beyond the ideological and moralistic viewpoints of a select few individuals or groups?
For Dr. Sylvia Karpagam, the answer is a flat ‘No’, and dangerously non-aligned with the public health perspective. Karpagam, who has specialised with an MBBS and MD in community medicine, has a stellar body of work in campaigns around the Right To Food, caste, and nutrition. In May, this year, she was part of a group of doctors, nutritionists, parents, advocates, activists, and researchers, who wrote an open letter to the Health Ministry, Women and Child Welfare Department, and the Prime Minister’s office.
The letter tries to summarise how the strafe on meat consumption could negatively impact our right to food and nutrition, often backing it up with astounding statistics that clearly point towards a sorry current state. To give you an idea, 35% of Indian children aged 0-4 years are stunted and 33% are underweight. Among children aged 6 to 23 months, only 42% were fed the minimum number of times per day for their age, and 21% were fed an adequately diverse diet containing four or more food groups.
Ask Dr. Karpagam, and she’ll reassure you that much of what indigenous communities, like the Scheduled Tribes, Dalits and Muslims eat traditionally is far more scientifically sound than any diet being purported by individual groups or cliques. Such as the Akshaya Patra Foundation (affiliated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON) promoting consumption of sattvic food, which then leaves eggs, poultry and other nutrient-dense items out of its ambit.
“Traditional communities, despite being marginalised, have devised ways of using, preserving, and consuming animal-sourced foods [ASF]. Be it drying meat, or eating animal organs, they have managed to introduce protein to their diets, notwithstanding the barriers. However, multiple policies are being introduced today, which are criminalising this, and much of it is political, ideological or propagandist, instead of being scientific,” Dr. Karpagam points out.
Ideologically inclined factions, however, are not the only ones contributing to this narrative. Influencers and recipe-creators on Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms, too— albeit it unintentionally—are often singing paean to milk or faux meat, and claiming that veganism or vegetarianism might be better for our health and the environment without substantiating their claims with facts.
Interestingly, for Dr. Karpagam, some of this also has to do with the corporate agenda of ventures under the FMCG (Fast-moving Consumer Goods) sector, which includes vegan and vegetarian brands that specialise in manufactured plant-based products/protein. “Reducing the dependency on what people eat locally, by saying that only foods that are packaged, fortified or with additives, are nutritious, is tied to corporate interests. Agencies that are promoting plant-based foods, for example, aren’t saying to eat fruits and vegetables. Which means, they will manufacture it and then market it to us,” she argues.
There’s truth in what she’s saying because much of the vegetarian and vegan movements rest largely upon industrialised products that could range from plant-based eggs to alternative milks and faux meat options. And the narrative here is often that it is ‘good for the environment’. But as Myron Mendes, an advocate for climate justice opines, many of these pro-vegetarian and vegan industries aren’t being questioned about their processes. “They’re using cold storage, plastic packaging, and energy-intensive processes; their products aren’t coming from farmers,” he shares.
Astonishingly, Mendes alerts me about how organic farming is not always friendly to the environment. He says, “It is true that the carbon emissions from meat production are high, but that’s because the processes are that way. However, going completely vegetarian might not be the answer because agricultural processes are responsible for some of the highest carbon emissions. India has a population that’s 71% non-vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean they’re eating meat every day. So, right now, what we need is a mix of different solutions that are traditional, as well as state of the art, in order to address the needs of a growing population, and close the gap between land-use efficiency and organic farming.”
In other words, what Mendes is suggesting, analogically speaking, is to not throw the baby out with the bath water. Objectively, if the arguments for vegetarianism are that it is good for our health and the environment, and if that truly is our concern, then maybe we need to question where our food is coming from, instead of questioning the food itself.
Gresham Fernandes, a Mumbai-based chef, seems to think in this direction. Fernandes, who has Goan roots, is no stranger to meat. However, recently, the gourmand has found himself tilting more towards a vegetarian diet. “It’s what works for me,” he says. “You cannot push something down someone’s throat. From where I’m standing, which is neither on the side of vegetarianism nor is it pro-meat, I think the focus should be on eating healthy and the welfare of animals. So, you can eat your pork or beef, but one simply has to make sure that the source is bonafide.”
Currently, the cattle industry in India is plagued by several hygiene-related and ethical concerns, which are compounded further by the presence of illegal slaughterhouses, ill-treatment of animals, and cattle rustling, which involves the theft of cattle by mafia groups. In 2021, for example, we exported 1.5 million metric tons of beef and veal from the country, according to a report by Statista. We’re one of the few countries to have codified animal welfare in the Constitution via the Prevention of Cruelty Act, 1960. In 2017, the government also issued a directive ordering the creation of district committees to monitor the illegal transport and slaughter of animals, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any literature on its progress.
Echoing this, anthropologist and food enthusiast Dr. Kurush Dalal shares, “The crackdown on unauthorised meat markets is a good idea, in so far as our health and animal welfare is concerned. However, it might not be a great idea in terms of how it impacts the livelihoods of people.” The livestock industry in India is one of the largest in the world, and about 20.5 million people in the country depend upon it, so a total shutdown, ban, or prohibition on meat will displace scores of Indians, especially at the grassroots level. Dalal, like Mendes, suggests a combination of measures that seek to better the livestock industry, instead of shutting it down.
There is something to be said here with respect to the possible loss of not only livelihoods, but also years of history, culture, and culinary traditions. It’s one thing to not be able to eat the beef and paratha-laden brunch of your dreams because of a panic-stricken father, and totally another to see it entirely wiped away.
Whatever may be the agenda, when it comes to bargaining for the future, perhaps there’s more merit in envisioning one that’s fair, equal, and democratic, instead of one that relies on selective food groups alone. It’s like asking a person to choose between beef bhuna and dal chawal without realising that they could have grown up on a steady diet of both. Many times, on the same plate, along with a generous dollop of aam kasundi pickle, of course.
Suman Quazi is a food writer and the Deputy Editor with Man’s World India. She is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food that’s meaningful, because it is a subject she’s both passionate and instinctive about. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications and dailies. Currently, she’s working on building a strong community for gourmands in India through her passion project, The Soundboard.