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Opinion: India is a nation of meat-eaters — they are mostly men

M A Kalam writes: Besides smashing the ‘vegetarian India’ myth, NFHS data also reveals how entrenched patriarchy dictates who is allowed to eat what.

Written by M A Kalam |
Updated: May 26, 2022 10:00:13 am
More men than women consume animal food. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Whatever may be the rhetoric or the narrative, even if the latter is a preponderantly dominant one, truth finds its own place to emerge. For years, many sections of Indian society, principally the right-wing segment, have peddled the story that India is primarily a vegetarian nation. Proclamations of this sort have been made time and again, although archaeological and anthropological data do not give any credence to such claims and assertions. The Vedas too do not support this narrative. In fact, it is unequivocally held that it was unviable to depend only on vegetarian food anywhere in the world even during the Vedic times.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) data (conducted between 2019-21) show that the proportion of men aged 15-49 years who refrained from consuming “non-vegetarian” food, that is, fish, chicken or meat (to be categorical, any meat) were a mere 16.6 per cent. Besides the fact that it is such a miniscule proportion of the population, what is more illuminating and significant is the revelation that there has been a 5 percentage-point drop from the 21.6 per cent recorded in the earlier round of the survey, that is, NFHS-4, conducted in 2015-16. However, in the case of women, the reduction was almost insignificant – it dipped from 29.9 per cent in 2015-16 to 29.4 per cent in 2019-21.

Stated differently, a staggering 83.4 per cent of men and 70.6 per cent of women in the 15-49 age group are non-vegetarian according to the NFHS-5 data. The corresponding figures from the NFHS-4 were 78.4 per cent for men and 70 per cent for women. So, is there any room for those who peddle the “vegetarian nation” rhetoric to hide? And if so, where?

While it is rather difficult to check the veracity of this assertion, there is often a tendency to establish a correlation between eating meat and consuming alcohol. But those who subscribe to such thoughts would be disappointed in this particular case as data from the NFHS does not support such a contention. There has actually been a 7 per cent decrease in the consumption of alcohol among men aged 15-49 between the NFHS-4 and NFHS-5 data.

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But before we analyse the likely reasons for the gender difference and skewing, and also the overall difference in terms of why more men consume non-vegetarian food, let us give a thought to the epithet that is bandied about so nonchalantly — the appellation “non-vegetarian”.

Firstly, it is a negative sobriquet that has been so generously bestowed upon those who have continued to eat meat of some kind or the other and have normalised a diet intake that includes meat products. But what is conveniently forgotten is that all such people also consume pulses, grains, vegetables, fruits and the like. If anything, such people have to be categorised as omnivorous because their food is derived from both animals and plants.

Secondly, and revealingly, some sections/groups have deviated from an earlier omnivorous form of food intake and after refraining from animal food, they have defined themselves as “vegetarians”. Moreover, gradually, vegetarianism has been projected, particularly and almost exclusively in India, as something pious, saintly, virtuous and righteous, leading to the prevalent holier-than-thou attitude. And that is being transmitted by the myriad vested interest groups in the country through generations, often with unstinted support from a section of politicians, devoutly religious people, and spiritual figureheads.

While it may not be all that easy to pinpoint the reasons for the increase in the consumption of animal food among men from the NFHS-4 to NFHS-5 data period, it is, however, almost a given that more men than women consume animal food mainly because of two reasons. One of these reasons is obvious; there are more opportunities to eat animal food outside of the home than at home. Eating in restaurants is more common among men than among women, and even if there are some restrictions at home, those seem to apply more to women. Eating outside the home gives men a lot of autonomy as well as anonymity at the same time.

In spite of the advances that India has made in so many spheres, it is still quite rare to find single women (or even a group of women) dining by themselves in restaurants in most parts of India. In other words, autonomy and anonymity do not come easily to women. Another factor that may well be at work on the home front is that due to gender discrimination, women often get deprived of certain kinds of food. This happens in most families across class levels. Besides, if at all there are any religious or cultural reasons in terms of avoidance of certain foods, it applies, at times loosely, and sometimes exclusively, to women. Given the patriarchal set up that is so prevalent in India, men exercise control over almost everything, including women’s piety and related dietary observances.

The realm of food is not manifestly excluded from the kind of authority that men exert in the Indian context. Also, in families and households where animal food is not cooked at home men may order/procure animal food from outside but invariably women do not partake of such food. It is significant to point out here that the process of socialisation is so biased in favour of men that the gender discriminatory path is laid out in families almost as if it is the divine path that has to be tread by the women. Globally, the proportion of those who are vegetarian would, at best, be 8 to 10 per cent. But the kind of gender skew in this context that can be found in India is an exclusive feature of the country, not replicated anywhere else.

The writer, a social anthropologist, is Visiting Professor, Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad. Views are personal.

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