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Vegetarianism & the politics of food in modern India

Dr Veena Shatrugna talks with Abhirup Dam about how government policies like the Recommended Dietary Allowance create a kind of institutionalisation of vegetarianism.

Abhirup Dam  30th Nov 2013

Mid-day meals at schools still don’t comprise any form of animal protein or milk

. Indian cuisine is not homogenous, and food habits and eating practices differ along regional, religious, caste, and class lines. Yet there is a commonsensical assumption in dominant discourses that India is a vegetarian nation? What factors do you think contributed towards this conception?

A. Contrary to general assumptions about India being a vegetarian nation, 80% of Indians are non-vegetarians. To culturally understand food politics in India, you need to go back a little. A lot of Hindu reform movements advocated vegetarianism. In fact Gandhi's doctrine of ahimsa had a huge impact on the social inscription of vegetarianism. Except a few upper-castes, such as Brahmins and Vaishyas, the majority of Indian society has enjoyed meat. But the formal institutionalisation of vegetarianism while fixing a balanced diet is a different story altogether.

Q. You have done significant research on how the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) in India, which is supposed to constitute a balanced diet for various age groups, including special groups like infants, nursing mothers, is completely vegetarian. What led to this and what were the implications?

A. This actually follows from where I concluded in the previous question. During the 1950s and early 60s when scientists and nutritionists were coming up with the RDA for the nation, the major focus was on cereals and pulses as a source of not just calories but also proteins. It should be noted that most of the experts were upper-caste Brahmins whose personal diet was vegetarian. Despite the evidence that animal protein was closest to human tissue proteins, with an almost 100% utilisation by the body (called Biological value), it was said that if cereal and pulses are consumed in a ratio of 4:1, in every meal, it will provide sufficient proteins. In fact the doctrine called "The Myth of Protein gap" was announced with much fanfare which justified India ignoring the role of milk and other sources of animal proteins for specially children and other vulnerable sections of society. But the under-privileged and working classes can hardly consume cereal pulses in the aforementioned ratio, in every meal. The poor rarely eat pulse at every meal and moreover a cereal intake at one meal does not wait in the body to metabolise whenever pulse is eaten next. You see cereal was believed to provide cheap calories, e.g., 100 grams of cereals provide about 340 calories while 100 grams of meat account for about 100 calories. But it is not a question of calorie intake alone. Other vital nutrients like good quality proteins, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, even folic acid, and good absorbable iron, and many other nutrients come largely from animal protein. While a National Vitamin A campaign was instituted to provide Vitamin A drops for children, to prevent blindness, other nutrients like Vitamin B12 iron, proteins etc. was somehow not talked about. Eggs, which are a relatively cheaper variety of animal protein, were not considered. Even today eggs are not distributed via the PDS, or served in mid-day meals at most schools. Milk was also completely kept out of bay, hence foreclosing the easiest way of calcium intake for growing children. In fact the earlier calcium recommendation in the 40s was 1 gram per day, which was later brought down to 400 milligram per day.

The RDA with cereal as the cheapest source of calories is useful when the government tries to push down poverty levels, minimum wages and assess desirable per capita income. By fixing a completely cereal-pulse diet, minimum wages were brought down by 1/3. Therefore you can understand what larger motives were at play here.

During the 1950s and early 60s when scientists and nutritionists were coming up with the RDA for the nation, the major focus was on cereals and pulses as a source of not just calories but also proteins. It should be noted that most of the experts were upper-caste Brahmins whose personal diet was vegetarian.

Q. Do you think there is rampant malnutrition in India? Which are the worst affected groups and why?

A. Yes, most certainly. The worst affected groups are the rural economically underprivileged, dalits and tribals, with children below 5 years, and pregnant and nursing mothers standing out. Over the years, there is widespread stunting in India. Children are failing to gain height and weight and as adults are becoming more prone to diabetes and high blood pressure. The first two to almost five years of a child's growth is extremely important as most of the muscle cells numbers are laid down. Muscles can only develop afterwards, but the basic structural growth happens in this period. Hence the lack of proper diet especially good quality proteins from milk, eggs and meat can prove detrimental. The lack of nutrition in pregnant mothers is the primary reason behind the high infant mortality rate in our country. Children are often born half a kilogram lighter than the normal weight, which is a significant difference. One disturbing phenomenon that I would like to mention here is the Barker's hypothesis which states if a pregnant woman does not receive quality food, the child's metabolic machinery is shrunk and he/she is conditioned to stay stunted and underweight for the rest of his/her life. Later if the same child is introduced to abundance, relatively a better diet, they will be extremely prone to diabetes and high blood pressure.

Q. What constitutes a balanced diet according to you?

A. Nutritionists broadly divide food into various food groups, and they are 1) Cereals, grains etc. 2) Pulses and Legumes 3) Milk, Meat, Fish and Eggs and their products 4) Fruits and vegetables 5) Fats and oilseeds 6) Sugar. A balanced diet should include foods from each of these groups and every nutrient like energy, protein or vitamins must be derived from many foods like cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits, oils, oil seeds, apart from animal protein (meat and eggs), and dairy. But this will not be possible until minimum wages are revised. Advocating right to food or the PDS system should entail quality food, and not just feeding the poor only rice.

Q. Are there more serious and focused research to evaluate eating practices, nutrition levels and how this affects the general health of the populace now? What according to you should be the approach?

A. I am neither hopeful of, nor in favour of the kind of research that is happening now. Scientists and nutritionists have somehow adopted a unipolar approach, where they are striving to find out solutions for a single nutrient deficiency. It is almost like the national Vitamin A programme. These researches are funded by huge multinational corporations who want to find a ready market for such nutrient substitutes. Other than focussing on just enabling the masses to gain access to a balanced diet, such research is facile. On the other hand I am extremely excited about the activism that we have been encountering lately in university campuses and other social spaces, involving dominant hegemonic practices which constitute the food politics of our country. For example 40-50% of the country consumes beef — this includes dalits, tribals from central India, Kerala as a state, and the North East. Beef is an extremely cheap source of protein and is not unhealthy by any scientific standards. Nevertheless the society creates condition where beef eating becomes a taboo, and those who eat beef can rarely acknowledge it in public. Hence a more permissive food culture, along with increased economic freedom for those living on the margins is the only way out of this crisis.

Dr Veena Shatrugna is the former deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad. She is also associated with Anveshi Research Centre for Women's Studies.

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