Dr. Sylvia Karpagam
Acknowledgements– I would like to place on record the role of Aahara Namma Hakku in Karnataka. I would also like to thank Dr. Veena Shatrugna and Siddharth Joshi for their inputs. Published in medico friend circle bulletin 381, Caste, Tribe and Religion:
Institutionalized discrimination in health, March 2023,18
It should come as no surprise that caste and nutrition are closely intertwined in the Indian context, because that would hold true in many other contexts as well. It is only those who are at the beneficiary end of the caste spectrum who are dangerously unaware of how caste operates in policy, planning, programs, implementation as well as in people’s lived realities. The unofficial imposition of vegetarianism, with the participation of vigilante groups, will have long term implications for the health of Women, children and other vulnerable groups.. The poor, subsisting on a cereal heavy diet with some watery dal through the week, are less and less likely to buy and consume even the weekly minimum recommended 500gms of meat per person. It will result in lower heights, increased anemia, low birth weight and much more. This article looks at nutrition and nutritional outcomes in India through the lens of caste.
Malnutrition crisis in the country
The National Family Health Survey[i] (2019-20) and Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey[ii] (2016-18) paint a dismal picture of nutrition indicators in the country. The repeated attempts to delegitimise international reports and assessments does little to mask the nutritional deficiency in the country.
|Indicator Source: National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2019-21||Percentage %|
|Non-pregnant women age 15-49 years who are anaemic (<12.0 g/dl)||57%|
|Pregnant women age 15-49 years who are anaemic (<11.0 g/dl)||52%|
|Men age 15-49 years who are anaemic (<13.0 g/dl)||25%|
|Children age 6-59 months who are anaemic (<11.0 g/dl)||67%|
|total children age 6-23 months receiving an adequate diet||12%|
|women with a Body Mass Index below normal or less than 18.5 kg/m2||18.7%|
|Men with a Body Mass Index below normal or less than 18.5 kg/m2||16.2%|
|Indicator Source: Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) 2016-18||Percentage|
|Percentage of children aged 0–4 years who were stunted||35%|
|Percentage of children aged 0–4 years who were underweight||33%|
|Percentage of Schedule tribe children aged 0–4 years who were underweight||42%|
|Percentage of Schedule caste children aged 0–4 years who were underweight||36%|
|Percentage of other backward classes children aged 0–4 years who were underweight||33%|
|Percentage of other group children aged 0–4 years who were underweight||27%|
Nutritional indicators for India (CNNS 2016-18 and NFHS 2019-21)
Children are defined as stunted and underweight if their height-for-age and weight-for-age is more than two standard deviations below (< -2SD) the WHO Child Growth Standards median (WHO, 2009). This essentially means that 1/3 of our children are unable to meet even -2 SD deviation from the WHO standard. This should be brought to the attention of those who are ready to shift standards downwards claiming that the WHO standard is a Western colonial imposition!!!
Anemia in children, and in combination with chronic hunger and other nutritional deficiencies that invariably co-exist, can lead to less than expected performance of the child in school. In a caste and class ridden society, where many government schools fail to meet even minimum educational standards, the disadvantages of children especially from marginalised communities start early in life. If these disadvantages are not picked up and addressed, they become an additional structural barrier to a child’s development.
The myth of Indian vegetarianism comes from a caste prejudice
The frequently bandied myth[iii] that India is vegetarian is more wishful thinking of those whose eternal fantasy is that India is a vegetarian country, rather than any real facts and figures. The fact of the matter is that a majority of Indians love their eggs,chicken,beef, fish etc. spiced with a hint of shame.[iv] This shame comes from the casteist propaganda that not just these foods, but even those who consume them are polluted, unhygienic, ‘lower caste’, criminal, lustful etc. These myths are conveniently reinforced by the corporate West who love the idea of a plant based food consuming, apparently peaceful, non-violent and yoga loving India. People in the West are mostly unaware about the caste system which is conveniently erased by the oppressor caste Indians in these countries – the same Indians who would fight for affirmative action and inclusion based on ethnicity, color and race.
Riding on the back of these myths are unethical cattle slaughter bans and the unethical denial of eggs in mid-day meals to some of the poorest children in government schools. This further manifests in the creation of ghettos of “pure” gated communities while simultaneously denying homes and jobs to meat eaters. Fragile vegetarians demand that all spaces that they occupy (and even those that they don’t occupy) are meat/egg/poultry free.
This push for a vegetarian India agenda pushes a raw (rather cheap) deal for the poor of the country. Researchers, academicians, bureaucrats, media and policy makers, mostly from the oppressor or vegetarian caste groups effectively implement this structural caste based cheap vegetarianism such that all social security schemes related to food are predominantly comprised of cheap cereals and millets, maybe some watery pulses, a few vegetables and little else. Criminalisation and erasure of nutrient dense animal source foods, except for the ‘vegetarian’ milk and dairy, is structural and institutionalised. No professional organisation has thus far raised any objection to this major attack on the right to a cultural appropriate food.
The National Food Security Act (NFSA)[v] has been in place since 2013 and was expected to mark a paradigm shift in the approach to food security, transforming it from a welfare to a rights-based concept. Unfortunately, the law has been reduced to providing the right to mere survival (with the cheapest minimum) rather than the right to a life free of nutritional deficiencies and ill-health.
Some of the discriminatory practices by the state are
Unscientific and discriminatory cattle slaughter ban
Cattle slaughter bans have affected many communities, often traditionally marginalised, who depend on the cattle trade, with no alternative arrangement either for livelihood or nutrition.[vi] The law has led to adverse economic, physical, social and psychological consequences for farmers, transporters, slaughter house workers, curing/tannery/leather workers, loaders/unloaders, cleaners, sanitation workers, butchers, small and large eateries, street vendors as well as a whole gamut of services associated with these. This is delegitimizing many traditional livelihoods and destroying the farming community.
“If India’s politicians had any connect with land and farming, they would understand the organic relationship farmers have with livestock, milk, manure and killing of cattle. It is not a Hindu-Muslim issue as the government is trying to project. This is a farmer’s issue”
A farmer in Karnataka about the cattle slaughter ban
Beef is regularly left out of all discourses around nutrient dense foods, culture or tradition in spite of being consumed by almost 180 million or 15% Indians, which includes dalits, Muslims, Christians, Other Backward classes (OBC), adivasis etc. Lynch mobs have been known to attack poor dalit and muslim men only on the suspicion of transporting cattle or beef[vii].
Institutionalised casteism – the mid-day meal scheme
The National Food Security Act (2013) was envisaged to meet at least a third of a child’s nutritional needs as a legal mandate. Depending on age, the child would have to receive between 450 -700 calories and 12-20 grams of protein in one meal, while also encouraging children in government and government aided schools to eat food together and made with local ingredients.
Although food is mandated[viii] to be cooked in the school, there is a clause which allows for it to be provided from outside if there is no space for cooking in the school. Using this clause, now large corporates have crowded into the mid-day meal scheme, the largest and most influential being the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF), a trust of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) which has a clear caste and ideological[ix] prerogative, promoting the pseudo-scientific concept of sattvic foods which are devoid of most spices and criminalising nutrient dense foods such as meat, fish, eggs etc. that are traditionally consumed by marginalised communities. This, combined with the denial of eggs in Mid-day meals in government schools in many states of the country leads to a poor-quality menu devoid of diversity or nutrient dense foods. Apart from that the centralised kitchen churning out bland sattvic food day in and day out, can promote homogeneity but does little for diversity or meal quality. Not surprisingly, children have rejected the food.
The organisation considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement’ inspite of this being mandated in State government menu. They have been given the contract for centralised provision of mid day meals to several government schools in the country. Coincidentally, research conducted by Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysuru, shows that the absorption of zinc and iron from cooked food is higher in the presence of onion and garlic.
For a majority (94%) of children in government schools who are from marginalised communities and malnourished, garlic, onion and eggs form an important part of their diets, limited only by the factor of affordability. That these are being denied to them by communities that don’t even attend government schools, is a good example of how caste-based discrimination of children from vulnerable communities is institutionalised.
Parents have complained that children come home and repeat ideological propaganda like garlic is bad for health, or meat will lead to a lack of concentration in studies. Students are told that they should eat vegetarian food in order to develop their brains and get good marks. None of this comes from any scientific basis, it only comes from prejudice. Children can’t take the meats that they eat at home to school because it leads to ostracization and makes them feel like they’re doing something disgusting. When we asked children why they don’t want to demand eggs in school, they say, “We should respect others.” But respect seems to only flow one way. While everyone needs to respect the vegetarian fragility, they themselves are completely disrespectful of the eating habits of others.
Eggs have been denied to children as part of the mid day meals in schools for several years. Described as the ‘menstrual discharge’ of the hen, eggs are labelled as ‘sinful’, ‘violent’, and agitating the senses, with egg eaters deserving to be ‘destroyed’. If, instead of this unscientific propaganda, the nutritional value of eggs had been the primary deciding factor, children would have been given eggs as part of the mid day meal scheme on 5 days of the week. The excessive resistance to the provision of the nutritionally superior egg in mid day meals for school children is just another proof of how prejudice and discrimination win hands down against logic and sound nutritional science.
Corporates promoting plant based foods as saviours of climate change
Multinationals which express concerns about climate change push for corporate dependent fortification shipping pre-mixes from Western countries to India over an indefinite period of time, while in the meantime, completely destroying food sovereignty in the country. The real agenda is that nutrient dense foods of animal sources will be replaced by cheap chemical based ultraprocessed foods manufactured in laboratories and transported by air or ship to countries like India, whose poor are expected to become the mascots of climate action.
The Eat Lancet Commission, driven by billionaires, has set out ‘scientific targets’ to “increase consumption of plant-based foods and substantially reduce consumption of animal source foods” and lauds India for being a ‘good example to show the world’ about plant-based foods. Vegan activists in India whether showcasing voices of dalit, Adivasi or other marginalised communities end up on the same side of the table with the billionaires deciding what food is best for the world.
However even the Eat Lancet Commission is unable to deny that plant- based foods are nutritionally inadequate for ‘vulnerable groups’ and they exclude children between 0-2 years from their plant-based recommendations.
The report also goes on to say that because of menstrual loss, adolescent girls are at risk of iron deficiency and that the solution would be multivitamin or multimineral preparations which are ‘less expensive’ and without ‘adverse consequences of high red meat intake’. Ignoring the benefits of red meat in the prevention and management of anemia, the authors of the Commission report sidestep the adverse effect of iron tablets and promote that for routine intake by adolescent girls. It is simplistic to assume that a complex physiological process of hemoglobin formation which performs the crucial role of carrying oxygen to the organs can be ensured by replacing one mineral (iron). So literally, nutrition that can be obtained from food has now shifted to being obtained from a bottle !! Ironically this groups recommends higher calorie intake from sugars as compared to any meat!
Apart from these adverse decisions, there have been clamours for erasing meat and eggs from public spaces.
The casteist nature of nutrition policies in India are visible in many forms. The idea that dalit, Adivasi and OBC children should be grateful for whatever food is ‘given’ to them is deeply ingrained in the minds of doctors, activists, researchers, policy makers and pretty much the entire gamut of citizens in the country. The idea that children have inviolable rights to healthy, nutritious, tasty, clean, culturally relevant food is lost on most people who claim these same rights only for themselves. This is the crux of how caste discrimination operates in India. It is of utmost importance that dalit, Muslim, Adivasi, Christian communities etc. that consume (and enjoy) eggs, beef, pork, fish, poultry etc. come together to reclaim their food sovereignty and challenge the hegemonic imposition of nutritionally inferior ‘sattvik’ or cheap vegetarian foods. The basis for nutritional policies and health educational messages should be science and not ideology or propaganda. There should be investment into traditional nutrient dense animal source foods that are subsidised and accessible. Cattle slaughter bans across the country have to be lifted and eggs have to be provided to all children who are traditionally used to consuming eggs on at least 6 days of the week. This is the only way to improve diversity of food consumed and increase quantities consumed. This in turn is the only sustainable and certain way of addressing malnutrition. Corporate dependent fortification, processing/ultra-processing, packaged foods etc. cannot be offered as solutions because they are not.
There is very little representation of vulnerable communities at policy making levels in India. Corporates, multinationals and caste groups collude to make decisions which are mostly exploitative or extractive of natural resources and human labour and do not benefit ordinary people. These decisions are not transparent or accountable, often made behind closed doors. We see the devastating impact of this in decisions around natural resources, education, livelihood, nutrition, healthcare. Foregrounding of community choices, local traditional and cultural foods often coincides with sound nutrition science.
[i] India Fact Sheet, National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5, 2019-20, Ministry of health and Family Welfare, International Institute for Population Sciences
[ii] “Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey” (2016-18), Poshan Abhiyan and National Health Mission, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India
[iii] Natarajan and Jacob ((2018) ‘Provincialising’ Vegetarianism Putting Indian Food Habits in Their Place’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 53, Issue 9.
[iv] Aggarwal P (2016): ”Caste on Your Plate: A Tale of Food Snobbery in India’ The Quint, 8th August 2016
[v] National Food Security Act, 2013, § 15(1), No.20, Acts of Parliament, 2013(India).
[vi] Karpagam and Joshi (2021): “Criminalizing Livelihoods, Legalising Vigilantism: The Adverse Impact of the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act, 2020” Ahara Namma Hakku
[vii] Nair S (2017): “The Meaning of India’s ‘Beef Lynchings’” The Atlantic, July 4th 2017.
[viii] Press Information Bureau (2011): ‘Centralised kitchens in mid-day meal scheme’ Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, 11th March 2011
[ix] Karpagam and Prasad (2018): “ISKCON-run NGO refuses to follow Karnataka order to include onion, garlic in mid-day meals’. Scroll.in, 12th December 2018