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In India, to be veg is to drink a lot of milk

From NSSO data comes a key feature of vegetarianism: states that consume more milk go slow on egg, fish, meat.

Written by Harish Damodaran |
Updated: June 12, 2015 5:47:37 am
The key takeaway from the NSSO data is that the defining characteristic of vegetarianism, as it applies to India, is about milk consumption. The key takeaway from the NSSO data is that the defining characteristic of vegetarianism, as it applies to India, is about milk consumption.

Being vegetarian means having a diet loaded with dal, sabzi and phal, right? Wrong — when it comes to India, at least.

Average household monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) on vegetables and fresh fruit is higher in fish- and beef-eating Kerala than in “vegetarian” Madhya Pradesh, whose Chief Minister has been in the news for taking eggs off the menu for anganwadi children.

No less revealing is per capita spends on pulses, vegetables and fruit in Rajasthan being below the national average for these items. Or, for that matter, vegetable consumption by the average person in Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura being higher than not just the corresponding all-India level, but even of “Vaishnav-Jain” Gujarat.


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All this information is based on the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO’s) last quinquennial 68th round household consumer expenditure survey carried out during July 2011-July 2012. The survey considers the quantities actually consumed, whether out of monetary purchases, or from home produce valued at the ex-farm/ex-factory price.

So, what really makes for “being vegetarian” in India, setting apart the ghaas-phoos types from the ‘non-veg’ types? The answer is to be found in milk. In 2011-12, the average MPCE on milk and milk products in India, at Rs 116.13 in rural areas and Rs 186.47 in urban areas, was way above the corresponding combined spending of Rs 45.62 and Rs 66.94 on egg, fish and meat.

mapBut the significant thing is, this pattern — milk spends amounting to over two-and-a-half times that on egg, fish and meat — was not reproduced across all states.

From the accompanying tables on the right, it can be seen that the states whose average MPCE on milk exceeded both the corresponding all-India levels as well as their spending on egg, fish and meat, were largely in the Hindi heartland, apart from Gujarat. Besides, there were states whose per capita milk expenditure, while being below the national average, was still higher than that on eggs and flesh foods. These included Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and the southern states, barring Kerala. All of them can be broadly understood as “being vegetarian”.

On the other hand, there is much more egg, fish and meat than milk in the average person’s food basket in Kerala, West Bengal, Goa and the Northeastern states. The same holds true for even Odisha and rural Chhattisgarh, which have significant tribal populations, although their per capita egg, fish and meat expenditures may be below the all-India average. All these states can be categorised as “non-vegetarian” in a general sense.

The key takeaway from the NSSO data is that the defining characteristic of vegetarianism, as it applies to India, is about milk consumption. States consuming a lot of milk tend to consume less of egg, fish and meat. The only exception is Goa — people there seem to relish both their surmai fish curry as well as their milk.

There is, however, no such inverse correlation with regard to pulses, vegetables and fruit. Thus, vegetable consumption in fish-loving West Bengal (or beef-eating Kerala) is more than that in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, despite the average MPCE on milk working out far higher for the latter two states.

map 2Simply put, people in India who claim to be vegetarian are mostly lacto-vegetarians, and not vegans — those eschewing all animal products, including milk.

The man who interestingly recognised these fine differences was Mahatma Gandhi. In a remarkable 1942 monograph titled Key to Health, the Father of the Nation made a distinction between “vegetarian”, “animal product” and “flesh foods”. Milk, in the Mahatma’s view, was an “animal product”, and “cannot be by any means included in a strictly vegetarian diet”.

But the killer line, relevant to the present context, was what he had to say on eggs: “Eggs are regarded by the layman as a flesh food. In reality, they are not. Nowadays sterile eggs are also produced. The hen is not allowed to see the cock and yet it lays eggs. A sterile egg never evolves into a chick. Therefore, he who can take milk should have no objection to take sterile eggs.”

It is unlikely, though, that Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan would buy this logic.

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