Newly released data by the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) has revealed an interesting connection between a person’s caste and their access to food. Comparing the eating habits of upper-caste Indians against scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes, the survey shows a direct correlation between economic background and a vegetarian diet.
Between 46.6% and 50.7% of rich SC, ST and OBC people consume meat at least once a week. The same is true of 33.6% of the poorest among this class. On the other hand, upper-caste people consume lesser and lesser meat as they get richer. The data shows that half of the poorest upper-caste people consume meat, the numbers drop to 32.9% for the richest. This raises the an important question – is a vegetarian diet (often peddled as healthier and even more ‘moral’) something every Indian can access? It isn’t. And it all comes down to economics.
Two important sources of protein in the staple food of many Indians are beef or buffalo meat, and daals. In 2015, beef sold at 77 paise per gram of protein while daal was almost twice as expensive, sold at Rs. 1.55 per gram of protein. What impact would a ban on beef in 18 states have on poorer Indians? It’s no simple coincidence that Dalits, schedule tribes and religious minorities – who bore the brunt of violent brahmanical ire – make up a sizeable portion of India’s economically weak populations. And it’s no secret that caste does determine a person’s access to food, among many other basic necessities. As such, maintaining vegetarianism as the standard is backed up by the hierarchy of caste.
In an NPR article, journalist Rhitu Chatterjee argues that “[v]egetarianism is often limited to privileged, upper caste Hindu communities and a couple of other religions, like Jainism.” The fact that the revised goods and service taxes for preserved vegetables has shot up from zero to 18% does seem to support the statement, much higher than the rates for meat, fish, and dairy products.
Examples of what might be branded a “vegetarian agenda” were also visible in midday meal schemes across the country. While eggs make for good nutrition, groups in Karnataka vehemently opposed its introduction under the Integrated Child Development Scheme anganwadis.
Activist Sachin Jain suggests that “upper-caste groups who are opposed to eggs in nutrition schemes are not the people who would ever need to avail of these schemes.” The issue with this, as he goes on to say, is that this group also holds positions of power and can influence policy and culture.
The NFHS data offers a significant glimpse into food politics in India, particularly in the highly charged atmosphere of beef-bans, cow vigilantism, and untrammeled caste discrimination. It would be useful to have more research on the relationship between diet and social stratification in India. And then, perhaps, the nation could work towards creating an environment where a person’s food habits are not used against them.