Part 2: Political and Policy Context
This is the second of a two part article. The first part discussed the historical and cultural context in which this issue is situated (and can be accessed here), while the second part delves into the political and policy aspects of the same.
Astitav Khajuria, Ayush Mehrotra, Bethamehi Joy Syiem and Charan Preet Singh
The politics over food is succinctly depicted in the famous television series Yes Minister which showcases the British politics with a sardonic and derisive undertone. One of the episodes highlights the key role played by a ‘sausage’ when the European Union (EU) issues a directive on sausage specifications. British sausages fall short of the EU rules and are renamed as ‘Emulsified High-Fat Offal Tubes’. The minister, Jim Hacker, is aware of the unpopularity of this decision with the public and decides to deliver a rousing speech defending the ‘great British sausage’. A staged deal with EU to accept the term ‘British sausage’ results in his popularity soaring, and not before long, the Minister is now the Prime Minister – all thanks to a sausage! Yes Minister underscores the importance of the value of food in political messaging.
In India, if one consumes meat, fish, or eggs, they would be referred to as ‘non-vegetarian’. This terminology speaks volumes of how the normative status of vegetarians is fortified by rendering the entire meat-eating population nameless and indicating the power wielded by the dominant vegetarians in India de spite being a minority (Sathyamala 2019). The food you eat categorises you in terms of religion, caste, and geography. Food lends itself to establishing an identitarian culture based on religious feelings. Despite the commonly held notion that the majority of the Indian population is vegetarian, the findings of The Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey in 2006 showed that only 31 per cent of the Indian population is vegetarian.
Eating and food choices are political acts, and nothing proves this more than the recent spate of hate crimes by extra-judicial right-wing Hindu fundamentalists. The thrashing of four Dalit men in Gujarat for their alleged attempts to skin a cow or the brutal lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq and the assault of his son in western Uttar Pradesh over the suspicion of them slaughtering a cow and consuming its meat makes the sub-text clear. The subsequent government inaction and statements that attribute the cause of such clashes to when “people’s sentiments are hurt” firmly place beef eating as wrong and anti-Hindu. Yet, according to scholars like Gopal Guru (2009) and D N Jha, in earlier times Brahmins ate beef, and beef-eating finds mention even in the Mahabharata (Chaudhuri 1965). The current political ruckus about cow slaughter and food habits is another step in the on-going fight to determine the definition of who gets to be considered as an Indian and who does not, and who gets to decide the matter. It is about using a beef ban to construct a homogeneous Indian image and this is despite the fact that Indian cuisine is not a homogeneous entity, and food habits differ along regional, religious, caste, and class lines.
Dr B R Ambedkar categorised people into three different hierarchies as per their food habits: the top one belonged to those who did not consume meat, the middle one belonged to those who ate meat except beef, and the bottom one was ‘reserved’ for the beef-eating population. Ambedkar further elaborated that those who consumed the dead cow’s flesh were the ‘polluting’ and ‘untouchable’ Dalits while the rest were categorised under the more accepted ‘settled community’. This choice of food was not voluntary but arose due to their severe penury because of the stigma associated with their caste and the consequent livelihood options or the lack thereof available to them (Masoodi 2016).
Be it land, water or food, Dalits never had any rights to anything. Food practices were never made out of choice (but were the fallout) of a lack of options. Pork and beef became part of the Dalit cuisine because it was easily available, because the upper castes didn’t want itDeepa Balkisan Tak (qtd. in Masoodi 2016).
As per the latest figures by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), beef consumers are comprised of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (70 percent), Other Backward Castes (21 per cent), and the Upper Castes (7 percent).
The brutality with which there has been an imposition of an unofficial code of vegetarianism in India and the manner in which counter-narratives have been met with violent push-backs lays bare the inherent tendency to violence in the very structure of the caste system (Sathyamala 2019). The challenge here is to ensure that moral fervour does not trample on legalities. We need political actors, particularly those in positions of authority, to fulfil their constitutional duties. Otherwise, the State would lose its independence and get dragged into the battle between non-state actors who try to mould the contours of a sovereign Indian inhabitant. That would be a terrible thing for tolerance – the willingness to accept views and actions one dislikes or disagrees with – which more than anything else underpins the notion of a secular democracy.
Food Security Programmes and Policies
The classical definition of food security encompasses three essential components – food availability, adequacy and absorption. In India, efforts to achieve food security have come in the form of a Public Distribution System (PDS), its evolution into a Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) and finally culminating recently into the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013, which gives citizens the Right to Food in India. Through these food security programmes and policies along with the success of the Green Revolution, independent India has been successful in overcoming problems of famines and mass deaths due to starvation (Pillay and Kumar 2018: 597).
Yet, it is also important to recognise that India is far from having achieved complete food security. In fact, food insecurity which is plainly linked to economic conditions is also linked to caste and social differentiation. An economic study of the role of caste and religion in food security in rural India from the School of Economics, University of Queensland, determines that food insecurity affect SCs and STs disproportionately, as they face significantly greater calorie inadequacy as compared to higher caste groups (Renuka and Suardi 2012).
In examining aspects of physical access, participatory empowerment and community-level access vis-à-vis government food security programmes, we draw from a study of the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu by Thorat and Lee (2005) along with insights from a study of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh (Sabharwal et al. 2014). Here, the Public Distribution System and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme has been studied in particular.
Public Distribution System
India’s Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) is its largest safety net program, in terms of both government expenditures and number of beneficiary households. However, despite this, it continues to be affected by issues of caste based discrimination. The first issue has to do with the location of the Fair Price Shops (FPS) as indicated with 70 percent of shops (in the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) being located in dominant caste localities and only a mere 17 percent of shops located in Dalit colonies (Thorat and Lee 2005: 4200). Besides the other forms of discriminatory practices that compromise Dalit access are discrimination in quantity and price along with caste-based favouritism and practices of ‘untouchability’ by the PDS dealers.
Of the five states surveyed by Thorat and Lee (2005), 40 percent of Dalits report discrimination as they receive lesser quantity of grain for the same price as compared to dominant castes. Besides this, another common practice pertains to PDS dealers charging Dalit customers higher prices for the same products. This was reported by 28 percent of respondents in the study. Further, favouritism also plays a huge role and manifests itself in various forms. In one form, the PDS dealer may service dominant castes throughout the week, while only serving Dalit customers on specific days – often with reduced hours. Another form of favouritism is also preferential order in service wherein Dalit customers are kept waiting unjustly for longer periods of time. Finally, the practice of ‘untouchability’ also continues to be one of the worst forms of caste discrimination and was reported by 26 percent of the respondents. Examples include the dropping of goods from above to the cupped hands of a Dalit to avoid ‘pollution’ by contact or the hanging of cloth screens in front of the FPS before dealing with Dalits.
Two policy solutions may be kept in mind in regard to the problems of caste based discrimination within the PDS. First, the government may relocate or newly locate PDS shops in Dalit colonies and mixed localities. Second, fostering of Dalit participation in terms of operation and ownership of programmes can both improve access and empower the community.
Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MMS)
The Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MMS) has the following primary goals – increasing enrolment, retention and attendance rates of children in schools, along with improving their nutritional levels. However, for SC children, an important aspect of their experience with the MMS is based on discrimination faced in accessing meals at school. This would eventually affect their inclination towards going to school, and the associated dimming of interest in learning. Six villages in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu report that SC children are completely barred from the MMS by dominant caste communities on account of being ‘untouchable’ (Thorat and Lee 2005: 4199). While these constitute only a small percentage, the problem of exclusion also comes up in terms of the discriminatory treatment pertaining to quantity of food supplied to SC children. Besides quantity, cases of differential treatment were also noted in the way Dalit children were served (Sabharwal et al. 2014: 179-180). Further, findings from the study by Sabharwal (2014) indicate that approximately only 20 percent of cooks, helpers, and servers were from the SC community.
Such caste based discrimination has led to lack of interest in their studies among Dalit children, resistance to attending school, considering school a painful experience, and poor academic performance among SC children. Thus, the MMS requires proper interventions to deal with discrimination in a comprehensive manner. Perhaps, one way could be the implementation of administrative guidelines that ban discriminatory practices that are punishable by law if not followed. However, social relations of such nature are hard to weed out through a top-down approach which comes with stricter laws and other instruments alike, as highlighted by Ambedkar through his struggles and writings.
In a country like India, where vegetarianism is a symbol of upper caste status, the idea that vegetarianism is morally superior results in food being entrenched into the caste system. Therefore, the demonstrations, particularly from the former ‘untouchable’ caste communities, reclaiming their right to eat ‘transgressive’ foods as a symbol of their culture, pose a serious challenge to the hegemony of the upper castes. Brutality perpetrated by ‘vegetarian’ India over such transgressions has opened up the structural violence rooted in the caste system and undermined its claim of moral superiority.
All the authors are currently pursuing their Master’s in Public Policy at NLSIU, Bangalore.
Astitav Khajuria has a background in Biotechnology from his undergraduate studies. Astitav likes to explore science and technology’s interplay with government and society at large. He can be reached at email@example.com
Ayush Mehrotra has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Delhi. Ayush is interested in exploring policies at the intersection of political economy, governance, and institutional design. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bethamehi Joy Syiem is a graduate from St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi. Her core interests lie in social justice, gender, sustainability and traditional ecological knowledge building (TEK). Outside of research and policy advocacy, Beth is passionate about cats, baking and soft pastel art. You can usually find her sipping lemon tea at Chetta’s and otherwise. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Charan Preet Singh is a jolly Civil Engineer who did put together couple of bricks for sometime. Public policy is a tool for him to understand and hopefully resolve some of the deformities in society. Inequality in any and every sphere of life is his biggest concern and he is a strong believer of ‘collective questioning’ to fight inequality and to grow personally. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chaudhuri, Nirad C. 1965. The Continent Of Circe: An essay on the peoples of India. Jaico Publishing House.
Das, Sallen. 2016. “Food Insecurity among Dalit Communities in India: Searching the Root Causes and Dimensions.” Journal of Political Sciences and Public Affairs 4(1): 1-6.
Guru, Gopal. 2009. Food as a Metaphor for Cultural Hierarchies. Center for the Advanced Study of India.
Mahadevan, Renuka, and Sandy Suardi. 2013. “Is there a role for caste and religion in food security policy? A look at rural India.” Economic Modelling 31: 58-69.
Masoodi, Ashwaq. 2016. A story of culinary apartheid. September 16, 2016. https://bit.ly/2VA40en (accessed July 1, 2020).
Pillay, P K, and T K Manoj Kumar. 2018. “Food Security in India: Evolution, Efforts and Problems.” Strategic Analysis 42(6): 595-611.
Sabharwal, Nidhi, Ajaya K Naik, Dilip Diwakar, and Sandeep Sharma. 2014. “Swallowing the Humiliation: The Mid-Day Meal and Excluded Groups.” Journal of Social Inclusion Studies.
Sathyamala, C. 2019. “Meat-eating in India: Whose food, whose politics, and whose rights?” Policy Futures in Education 17(7): 878-891.
Thorat, Sukhdeo, and Joel Lee. 2005. “Caste Discrimination and Food Security Programmes.” Economic and Political Weekly 40(39): 4198–4201.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of NLSIU, Lokniti or its members.