The assumption that Indians are largely carnivores is a fallacy.
Data suggests, that excepting some pockets in the east and south, people prefer to eat meat only sparingly.
The food habits of Indians is a topic of much contention and argument in Indian public discourse. There are several questions that usually come up in Indian drawing rooms whenever the topic of food comes up.
What do Indians like to eat? What proportion of Indians are vegetarians? Do Indian “non vegetarians” eat meat often? If yes, how often? How do eating habits vary across geographies? Is Southern India indeed more “non vegetarian” than the North, and if yes, to what degree? How do eating habits vary by gender? How does it vary by caste? Are the vegetarians of India predominantly upper caste as often supposed? Does wealth influence Indian eating habits?
These are some of the fascinating questions that are asked extremely often. Yet seldom answered with data. Usually misconceptions abound, which are shaped by one’s political orientation.
Here are some of the more common popular misconceptions –
· India is largely a non-vegetarian country
· It is only the upper-castes who abstain from meat
· It is economic hardship that prevents people from eating meat
· Gujarat/Rajasthan are the only states where a majority of people are vegetarian
· Southern India is almost entirely non-vegetarian except for Brahmins
While some of these misconceptions may have a grain of truth to them, they are often half-truths, as they tend to rely on the simplistic vegetarian versus non-vegetarian binary and critically ignore the frequency and actual pattern of meat-eating in the country.
This piece is an attempt to present some facts on the table based on the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4) of 803,097 men and women aged between 15 and 49.
While this may seem like a straightforward question, there are several ways to answer it, especially if one considers the frequency of meat eating. While a quarter of the Indian population may be regarded as strictly vegetarian (by no means a small proportion), a much larger proportion eat meat only occasionally.
Here’s a table gleaned from the survey –
So, while the table suggests that 74 per cent of the Indian population may have consumed meat at some point, only 45.9 per cent actually consume “non-vegetarian” food on a weekly/daily basis The headline message that “Over 7 in 10 Indians eat meat” may be provocative and catchy, but a closer look at the data suggests that only a little over 4 in 10 Indians are regular meat-eaters, with less than 1 in 10 consuming meat on a daily basis.
One common counter to the low frequency of meat eating in India is the hackneyed argument that cites economic hardship as the reason for the same.
The National Survey debunks this hypothesis by examining vegetarianism by “Wealth Index” – an index that is indicative of economic prosperity measured based on degree of access to consumer goods.
We notice that the individuals in the highest quintile of “wealth” are in fact more likely to be vegetarian than individuals in all other quintiles except the lowest 20 per cent.
So clearly, vegetarianism stems from cultural preferences and religious convictions, as opposed to lack of choice.
Now let’s move to caste.
In sharp contrast to popular perception, the prevalence of vegetarianism among the supposedly “low” castes is actually quite wide. Here’s a table from the survey –
We notice that the proportion who eat meat regularly among SCs and STs is 47 per cent - which is only marginally higher than the national average of 45.9 per cent. Clearly contrary to popular perceptions.
However, it needs to be noted that the category “Other” in the above table includes not just forward castes, but also Muslims and Christians. So, the meat-eating percentage would be much lower for forward-castes than the figure of 48.7 percentage shown for the “Other” category above.
So, let’s now look at meat eating rates by religion. The percentage of Hindu population that eats meat every week is 41.6 per cent - distinctly lower than the national average of 45.9 per cent. For Muslims and Christians, the proportion is over 70 per cent.
But the table is intriguing as it reveals the very high prevalence of vegetarianism among Sikhs. Fewer than 10 per cent of the 13,000-odd Sikhs in the sample reported that they eat meat every week.
The prevalence of vegetarianism is very widespread, especially if one focuses on Hindu/Sikh/Jain society.
There is one dimension that does discriminate on Indian food habits, and that is geography. Let’s look at the rates of meat eating for the major provinces in the country. We will start with North India.
Clearly, in the northern part of India, the dominant culture is one of vegetarianism.
With the exception of Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand, the rest of Northern India has meat-eating rates that are lower than 30 per cent. In fact, with the exception of J&K, every state in the North has a meat eating percentage below the national average of 45.9 per cent.
Like the North, the western states too exhibit a strong affinity to a vegetarian diet. Excepting Goa, we see that the proportion of the population adhering to a largely vegetarian diet is over 80 per cent in Gujarat and well over 50 per cent in Maharashtra.
Now let’s move to the South. The rates of vegetarianism are distinctly lower in the Southern states, though not by as much as one would imagine.
Over 40 per cent of Karnataka’s respondents eat meat fewer than once a week. In Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, that proportion is 25 per cent. So clearly, vast swathes of southern society (and not merely Brahmins who constitute barely 2-3 per cent of the population) practice vegetarianism.
Moving to the East, which is inarguably the most “non-vegetarian” friendly part of the country, findings indicated that the Northeastern states have very low rates of vegetarianism, but I would pay attention only to the three large states in blue – as they are likelier to have healthier samples.
While Bengal has an over 90 per cent meat-eating rate, the percentage in Orissa is much lower – under 70 per cent.
This survey across provinces leads us to one very clear conclusion – vegetarianism, notwithstanding its very high prevalence in the North and the West, is a nationwide phenomenon.
The rates of vegetarianism are usually grossly understated in the South, because attention is not paid to the frequency of meat-eating. As we noted, even in a state like Tamil Nadu, 25 per cent of the population does not eat fish/meat on a weekly basis.
In fact, if we discount the smaller states (Northeast excluding Assam and Goa) and consider the rest, we are left with only three provinces across the country where the meat-eating percentage on a weekly basis is in excess of 80 per cent - West Bengal, Assam and Kerala.
The claims that we hear about India being predominantly “non-vegetarian” are spurious as they do not bake in the low frequency of meat consumption.
On a separate note, the National Family Health Survey is an incredibly rich document that needs closer perusal – though we have chosen to focus on one small facet of the document for the purposes of this piece.