The Spread of Hinduism Led to the Decline of Food Diversity in India?

First published here:

I have spent a few days in a set of tribal hamlets in the Rayaguda district of Odisha during the last of week of June. An organization is working there to rejuvenate the food diversity among these tribal people. They have exhibited (to us, the outsiders) a wide variety of food materials. These include different varieties of paddy, lentils, green leaves and vegetable, tubers, fruits, etc. Most of these are unknown to even those people who are from Odisha. A major part of these food materials is uncultivated, and tribal people collect these from nearby forests.

It is true that this food diversity has declined over time. There is a discourse on the factors that have led to this decline, and the usual suspects are the modernization of agriculture or economic development or modernization in general. The degeneration of the quality of forests in the neighborhood too has contributed to this decline of the variety of food. For all these reasons, there is a need to make conscious efforts to rejuvenate and strengthen the food diversity in these localities. This particular non-governmental organization is doing good work in encouraging tribal people to continue to sustain/use these crops and plants. The preservation of such a food diversity is useful not only for these people but for all of us and the world as a whole.

However, there is something missing in this description of food diversity. What we have seen there, or what has been shown to us, or what the non-governmental organization is trying to preserve, is the vegetarian food diversity. There is a silence about non-vegetarian food. People express certain shyness, or are reluctant to talk openly, about the kind of non-vegetarian food that have eaten in the past or are using currently. They would start talking about it somewhat incompletely when we probe further.

There are clear indications that the people in these settlements have been using a variety of animal meat and most of these are obtained from forests. These include different kinds of animals, reptiles and small fauna like insects. There are two kinds of changes in this regard over time. First, different sources of animal protein from forests have dried out or the access to such sources for the tribal people is restricted by the forest department. Though they have goats and chicken in their backyard, the meat from these sources is available only limitedly. Or these cannot compensate for the types of animal protein that they have used earlier. These people like to have animal protein, and a decline in its use and availability can be harmful to their nutritional status. This is especially so when they are not used to or cannot afford a richer vegetarian diet to meet all nutritional requirements. By the way, they do not consume milk that much. They have some apprehensions in this regard. Though cows and bulls are used for agricultural purposes, beef is not consumed here too (probably by following the Hindu norm which prevails in different parts of the country). In essence, these communities which have been consuming both non-vegetarian and vegetarian food in the past, may encounter nutritional deficiency, when they move towards a predominantly vegetarian food, if there cannot be a substantial enhancement in the nutritional content of the latter due to economic and cultural reasons.

Secondly, there is a reluctance to admit openly that they have consumed (or are consuming limitedly) different kinds of animal meat. We may think that this shyness regarding (or the reluctance to admit) the consumption of a wide variety of animal protein is part of a civilizational change or modernization. This is incorrect. It is easy to understand this if we travel and get exposed to the street food in China or a number of countries in south-East Asia. People there eat a wide variety of animal protein both from domestic and wild sources. The streets of south-east Asian cities have stalls selling fried insects.  I have had discussions with a trader in China who has thrived in the business of supplying snakes to the restaurants in Hong Kong.

Many of these meat products were sourced from the wild earlier. When such sourcing has become difficult, they have tried out innovative ways to breed and farm these animals. When I was in Borneo recently, I could a see a potentially lucrative business that is carried out in certain Tribal hamlets there. They create spaces where a certain type of small or tiny birds build nests by using their saliva, and these nests are collected and sold to Chinese consumers. It has become of one of the most expensive food in some of these countries. In essence, the food consumption of these east and south-east Asian societies could evolve organically without reducing the food diversity that much. There the consumption of a wide variety of animal protein or meat (both from farms and wild) is celebrated as part of their contemporary food culture. There is no shame attached to the consumption of different kinds of meat.

However the situation in India is different. Though many people including Tribal groups have been using a variety of animal protein in India in the past, these have not evolved organically to become part of their current diet. Or these have not become socially acceptable food. Hence there is a secrecy or shyness about eating such food. This is the case not only of tribal people but also of other sections of Indian society. My impression is that there are other social groups which have consumed beef in the past, and they have stopped doing so, as part of their `modernization’.

There could be underlying social, cultural and `political’ reasons behind this shyness or silence on non-vegetarian food. Commentators may attribute the decline in food diversity among Tribal people to the spread of modern agriculture. This may not be a valid argument since agriculture (which itself is only a relatively minor source of food for these people) is yet to become `modern’ in the conventional sense in these tribal hamlets. The decline in the diversity of non-vegetarian food or the silence about it cannot be due to the `modernization’ imposed by colonial rulers. Though a set of colonial observers had viewed some of the practices of Indians as primitive, they were not that concerned about the consumption of different kinds of meat. Europeans, in general, are much more open to the consumption of a diverse set of meat than Indians.

It looks that the gradual intrusion of Hinduism (or its acceptance) among Tribal people has an important role in this regard. The reluctance to express the eating habits of non-vegetarian food could be driven by the perceived need to conform to Hindu norms. We could see other manifestations of this `Hinduisation’ in these villages. Women have started following practices and rituals which have not been part of the culture of tribal populations.

There are well-known activists in India who are serious about conserving crop and food diversity. They take strenuous efforts to conserve different varieties of paddy, vegetables and fruits. However they are also silent on the non-vegetarian part of food diversity in India. This cannot be driven by the concerns about the health status of Indian population. The consumption of vegetarian food alone by the dominant sections of India has not made its people healthier on an average, say, compared to those in East and south-east Asia. In fact, India faces two serious problems – malnourishment on the one hand, and obesity and higher prevalence of cardiac diseases on the other hand.

This is a general problem in India’s environmentalism. Brahminical environmentalists in India seem to think that the consumption of vegetarian food is the way to conserve environment. Their deep-rooted caste norms seem overriding their knowledge of the science of ecology. Their attitude shapes forest conservation rules including those related to the use of forests by tribal people for different purposes.

Are Indians concerned more about environment and natural resources than, say, people in East and south-East Asian countries who eat non-vegetarian food? Does India have more effective rules to conserve forests than the countries in Europe and North-America where the hunting of wild animals is used as a part of their wildlife management strategy?

In fact, the growth in the number of one or other species of wild animals is against the sustenance of ecological balance in forests. That is one reason for the practice of controlled hunting in the developed world. The institutional weakness in countries like India where the controlled hunting may lead to illegal hunting is understandable. However, this should not encourage us to believe that the conservation of nature requires the abolition of the use of wild animals and non-vegetarian food.

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