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Is Veganism For The Average Indian, Or More Of A ‘Rich Man’s Privilege’?

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I have recently been sucked into the debate surrounding the vegan movement in India, something which I almost always ignored. Constant appearances on my Facebook timeline have peaked my interest in this particular movement, the emotions, and the scientific reasoning to support the same.

One person claimed that humans started eating meat only 900 years ago; another claimed that the Bible says don’t eat meat; yet another claimed that Indian crop farmers are poor because we eat meat; another says that we should not be eating animal derived products because we neither have claws or canines; and so on and so forth. I don’t know how truly scientific any of it is, but, erm, okay.

Despite my love for all kinds of animal derived products such as milk, eggs, fish, and meat, I genuinely started considering that maybe I could go vegan, because I absolutely love animals. After all, animals certainly do not deserve to die to fulfill our gluttony. There are aspects of the vegan movement that I really do support such as raising your voice against animals being used for sport, animals kept in zoos, animals being used by pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, animals being used in factories and in large scale commercial models to derive food, and so on and so forth.

I have this insatiable need to verify things before I become a politically inclined member of any particular movement. I randomly started Googling things to know more. I wanted to know whether plants are capable of feeling pain (and they actually do); how much the environment is being affected and whether there is some other way to save the environment than going vegan (and there is); whether there is any way to think about animal welfare and still not go vegan at the same time (and there is). Still I tried to understand the emotions that drive vegans. However, during my Google shopping spree for information, I stumbled across something that caught my attention and conscience – the food availability and the ability to procure food by the poor and the average Indian in our third world nation; gluttony is not all that there is to food here, it is a necessity. That’s when I realized that in spite of India being a mostly vegetarian nation, asking her to go vegan in terms of dietary choices is unethical, immoral, and actively goes against the very cry for human rights.

Now, the most popular stand of the vegan movement is that plant derived food is in every way better for health than any kind of animal derived food. Here I will point out that many ex-vegans have become ex-vegans because they faced nutrient deficiency even after taking all possible supplements; find their personal blogs; and definitely consult your physician before you, someone who can afford veganism, decides to go vegan. Different bodies have different requirements, and the internet cannot tell you what is best for you.) Beyond this statement, I am no expert when it comes to nutrition. My only source of knowledge, like many vegans, is the internet. So, I shall try to draw the vegan’s compassion to certain facts, attempting to do so by illustrations.

Let’s first talk about milk. The problem is, half the internet is saying skimmed cow milk is better while the other half is screaming almond milk is better. Some, on the other hand, say that soya milk is good. 20 different articles saying 20 different things is enough to confuse someone like me, and I am truly at a loss. I don’t know what to believe and what not to believe. But I do know this (according to a quick internet search):

  • Image source: Wikimedia Commons

    1 Litre Cow Milk from privately owned dairy farms in Rural India ranges between Rs. 16 – 26

  • 1 Litre Cow Milk from Mother Dairy ranges between Rs. 38-46
  • 1 Litre Cow Milk (Toned) from Amul costs Rs. 42
  • 1 Litre Cow Milk (Full cream) from Amul costs Rs. 52
  • 1 Litre Soy Milk from Soyfit costs Rs. 120
  • 1 Litre Organic Almond Milk from Europaea costs Rs. 390 (+ Rs. 119.86 Delivery Charge) on Amazon India (does not deliver to my pincode)
  • 1.2 Litres Drupe Almond Milk Cocoa Power costs Rs. 560 (+ Rs. 70 Delivery Charge) on Amazon India (does not deliver to my pincode)
  • 946 ML of White Wave Silk Almond Milk Unsweetened Vanilla costs Rs. 2149 on EBay India (delivers to my pincode)

Having shared the above bit of information, I think there are a few important things one needs to understand – the poor and the average Indian, whether in urban India or rural India, will find it difficult to afford or procure almond milk and soya milk. If cow milk (or other local substitutes such as goat milk, buffalo milk, camel milk, etc.) are taken out of the equation, while the socio-economic, geographic, regional and market parameters remain the same, then a major part of the Indian population will be deprived of nutrition in the garb of veganism.

Now let’s talk about chicken and eggs (poultry) and its vegan substitutes. These names too I get from an internet search, being a thorough layman in the area. The first set of information is about the price of poultry in my locality –

  • Chicken – Rs. 150-200 / kg
  • Poultry Eggs – Rs. 4.50-5.50 / egg
  • Duck eggs (non-poultry, available through poor women keeping ducks in their backyard) – Rs. 8-10 / egg

Now, let’s talk about their substitutes. Keep in mind, that to substitute poultry, any one of the following, in little amounts, is not going to be sufficient in terms of nutritional value. *

  • A child pictured after receiving his plate of food

    Mushrooms – Available at Rs. 350-400 / kg

  • Button Mushrooms – Available at Rs. 800-1000 / kg
  • Soya chunks / dehydrated soy – Available
  • Tofu – Might be available only in large departmental stores at Rs. 200-300 / kg
  • Quinoa – Might be available only in large departmental stores at Rs. 400-700 / kg
  • Seitan – Might be available only in large departmental stores at Rs. 300-400 / kg
  • Kale, Black Beans and other Variation of Beans – Unavailable
  • Lentils – Available but price is varied depending on the type of lentil
  • Brown Rice – Available only in departmental stores at Rs. 130-170 / kg
  • Eggplant / brinjal – Available but white brinjal is seasonal
  • Spinach, mangoes, green beans, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, jackfruit, oranges, strawberries, pumpkin, mangoes, grapes, litchi – seasonal
  • Broccoli, Cantaloupe – seasonal but rare
  • Capsicum (Red and Green), Apples, Carrots, Tomatoes – seasonal but available throughout in departmental stores at high prices
  • Oranges, strawberries, pumpkin, mangoes, grapes, litchi – seasonal
  • Potatoes, Papaya

*Most of the available ones cannot be termed as inexpensive. The information is gathered from in and around my locality.

These above items are also suggested as substitutes to fish and meat, both of which are easily available in my locality (a small town by the Ganges in West Bengal), and to a certain extent, affordable by the average Indian. What about poor people in villages who cannot afford anything I have mentioned so far? Some resort to eating snails, and tiny fish after local ponds dry up during the summer, some tear little leafy veggies from farm lands around. I can keep listing more suggested dietary and nutritional substitutes by the vegan populous but I think I have made my point.

I understand the ethical conundrum and environmental factors presented by the vegans in factory farming of meat and large scale commercialized farming that not only have no consideration for animal welfare but also risk human lives by having low bio-security, using antibiotics in animals and so on. But the question remains, does that call for actively banning any and every kind of animal derived food?

Insensible jokes such as this are made in the name of veganism

Not to mention, billions of people depend on the animal industry for their livelihood. Also, in India, we find hybrid tomatoes (and other seasonal fruits and vegetables) to make them available throughout the year, fruits (particularly, mangoes) and vegetables with carbide and other chemicals, an inordinate amount of insecticides, pesticides, and colouring goes into the fruits and vegetables we eat every day. Are these not contributing to health issues as well?

I see a middle ground here. There needs to be a dynamic change in animal farming business models, laws and regulations should be in place to regulate the small-scale farms, administrative bodies, advisory committees and boards, redressal techniques and centres, etc. should be in place, so as to ensure animal welfare and public health at the same time. The Food Adulteration Act needs to be in active check for use of harmful chemicals in not only plant derived food but animal derived food as well. The LLM student in me believes that this re-modelling is more realistic than stopping people from consuming animal derived food altogether.

I shudder to think of the millions and millions of infants and children who are already undernourished, the millions of adults and old people who are undernourished, and what we would be doing to them if we forced the nation to go vegan. It would be equivalent to murdering them – it would be equivalent to mass genocide. And I don’t understand how animal rights activists fail to observe human rights when they advocate veganism. I think the veganism debate needs to be approached at with a little more logic and reasoning. I think it is simply ignorant to choose to remain ignorant of the big picture. Many vegans exhibit a holier-than-thou attitude, which can be very frustrating.

Two schools of thought, two rights, cannot remain at cross-hairs with one another. A radical thought process is not going to help.

In the end, all I can say is, veganism is nothing but a rich man’s privilege; you can choose to eat what you want because you have the privilege to do so. But you really should not be asking the entire nation to follow in your footsteps. I am not asking you to give up veganism but it seems to me that veganism for all sounds good in theory. The reality paints a different picture altogether. A lot of us make genuine efforts in making contributions to ensure that the millions in our country are at least fed a little. Is it so strange to think about them alongside the animals? The animals do not deserve to die. But do our countrymen deserve to starve to death? You tell me. I am an average Indian and I cannot afford to go vegan. And I certainly cannot ask my nation to go vegan.

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  1. Darshana Muzumdar

    Almost all traditional Indian meals are Vegan by default: roti, sabji, dal, chawal, cuchumber, pickle. You just need to take care there’s no ghee in it. This is a diet sold for Rs 60/- per plate in many places. The fact is that a poor man’s diet is already Vegan, because that’s what he eats: roti, sabji, dal, chawal. And he’s not only saving money eating it, but is also healthier for it. This meal is almost always a whole-food plant-based diet apart from the rice which is polished. In fact, many of the people living in slums eat bajra or jowar rotis which we all know are healthier and have a lower glycemic index, releasing energy slowly into the body and thus keeping hunger at bay in a healthy manner. Most people in the lower income groups eat twice a day but are healthy and not starving at all because their food on the whole has a low GI. He’s definitely not looking for any substitutes because milk and milk products were never a part of his diet to begin with. There’s a lot we can in fact learn from the poor man.

    Milk products, including paneer, are relatively new ingredients, added to the diet (after the white revolution started) somewhere in the 60s and 70s. It’s no wonder that our traditional food is Vegan: India is a country rich in varieties of vegetables, fruits, pulses, millets and grains, many of which have been lost to the new culture of eating out and the new animal based diet we’ve been manipulated and conditioned into accepting as “healthy”.

    There’s a movement of sorts of whole food plant nutritionists and organic farmers who are reviving the traditional gems in the Indian diet and also reviving health among people. Do Google search “Whole-food Plant-based” (WFPB) nutrition. It’s the only diet that reverses diseases like diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, osteoporosis, auto immune diseases, heart issues, thyroid issues, and even some cancers.

    It’s difficult for most middle class and upper middle class people (the so-called educated class) to go back to eating traditional food because we’re so used to eating the new foods made with animal products that are marketed to us so shrewdly. Most of us don’t even realize how we are being manipulated by these industries. It’s time we stopped looking for substitutes. It’s time we embraced our roots where food is concerned. It’s time to go back to eating food that will lower the amount we spend on food and get us healthy again.

    1. Tejaswinee Roychowdhury

      Thank you for your response.

      What you mention as a sustainable plant-based diet for the Indian community is the mostly available products: roti, sabji, dal, chawal, cuchumber, pickle. I would also add rice, puffed rice, flattened rice, etc. I already mentioned in the blog that all the recommended veggies and fruits for a healthy diet is not available throughout the year and throughout the country. Milk products is not something that started in the 60s and 70s. You are saying write revolution because you are missing out on milk-derived sweets (mishti), for instance, roshogolla dates back to the 12th century. Cow Milk itself dates back to at least Vedic India which is more than 5000 years old. It is ingrained in our very culture, cattle was used as currency back then.

      Coming back to your point, the question remains – are these enough to get all the required nutrients? I think not. A basic ‘google search’ for the nutritional value in each of the products you and I both mentioned, would tell you that a diet based on just roti, sabji, dal, chawal, cuchumber, pickle and rice would not give Vitamin B12, and certain other only animal derived nutrients. The popular vegan argument would be – take supplements. Not to mention that a diet that requires supplements in the first place cannot be termed healthy to begin with [David Gettof]. Even if I consider taking supplements for each of the nutrients I am missing out on, the pills cost like Rs. 400 – 700 or even more / bottle for each separate nutrient. And that is what reinstates my point in the blog.

      Then you go on to say that ‘Do Google search “Whole-food Plant-based” (WFPB) nutrition. It’s the only diet that reverses diseases like diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, osteoporosis, auto immune diseases, heart issues, thyroid issues, and even some cancers.’ I beg to differ. But I am no nutritionist. So I will again refer to David Gettof (who is) and raises a pertinent question in the matter in an interview – How many generations of vegans are there to prove that veganism is a healthy life-choice in the long run? There are certain health aspects that needs ages to show the first symptoms. It is mentioned that a research study on eating habits needs at least 4 – 5 generations to be able to prove that it is sustainable, that there are no genetic effects as its result. (Reference: https://www.youtube.com/attribution_link?a=gPyet-6sfak&u=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D1_E3iMrq-UA%26feature%3Dshare) As for a Google search, I already did mention earlier that there are a lot of websites (and studies) saying one thing, and there are studies that rebut it. Why are we ignoring the rebuttal points being made?

      You are telling me that we are being manipulated by industries. That is a conspiracy theory that I just do not buy. If your sole argument is based on a conspiracy theory then I find that highly unreasonable. There was no global marketing until the mid-19th century. So, what is your point?

      There needs to be a certain amount of honesty in the vegan movement regarding health. There was a news that said that a 8/11 month old child died due to an ‘alternative diet’ practiced by the parents and that the doctors found nothing in his stomach. There are multiple cases of children with stunted growths due to vegan diets and most of these cases are from the developed countries. There have been cases where a mother couldn’t continue to breastfeed because her vegan diet dried up her glands. It is the revelation of these cases that question the relation between veganism and a healthy diet. It is very easy to say that ‘they did it wrong’ but is that really so? There are vegans that are questioning this. And, therefore, to think that the Indian populous can survive healthily on just roti, sabji, dal, chawal, cuchumber, pickle, rice, and seasonal fruits and veggies, seems a little far fetched.

  2. Kaustav Ghosh

    thumbs up for your research

  3. Karthika S Nair

    Thank you for the piece. Militant veganism is very annoying these days.

    1. Tejaswinee Roychowdhury

      It is indeed.

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