Opinion

The EJ Series, part 15: Cows, instant noodles and environmental justice – culture, power and food in India

For environmental justice, we must support the struggles of those who strive to live and eat with dignity and pride, which means fighting for land, water and forests, and the nutritious traditions that flow from them, as well as demanding government policies that respect cultural diversity and social equity.

‘A man selling wide variety of items in his grocery shop, Kolkata, India’ by Saurav022. Sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 657027709

This article is based on a presentation by Amita Baviskar on a panel entitled ‘Culture, Food and Health’ at the Environmental Justice 2017: Looking Back, Looking Forward Conference, University of Sydney, 6-8 November 2017.

From the perspective of environmental justice, any discussion on culture, food and health in India must begin by noting the persistence of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and the deepening of social and economic inequalities. Within this frame, I am going to focus on two issues: the first is common to India and many other post-colonial countries – and that is the rising consumption of junk food, and the second is probably specific to India – the conflict around eating beef. I’ve chosen these issues not only because they are important in the context that I work in, but also to highlight that our conversations must be global as well as attentive to distinctive local features.

India has witnessed unprecedented economic growth since the 1990s when successive governments have adopted policies of market liberalization, attracting capitalist investors by giving them great deals: subsidized land, minerals, tax holidays, cheap and compliant labour. These policies have indeed created great wealth for some Indians, and they have also created a large and growing middle class that aspires to consume on par with the Global North. The top five percent of Indians drive cars from their air-conditioned homes to their air-conditioned offices, plan holidays abroad, shop for New Zealand apples and Australian oats.

However, most of their fellow-citizens live with chronic hunger, desperately trying to eke out their next meal, feeling helpless anger as their children cry for food. India’s richest 10 percent holds 370 times the share of wealth that its poorest hold. And this segment has been getting steadily richer, and now holds nearly three-quarters of total wealth. This obscene inequality isn’t happenstance or an unintended side-effect of liberalization. The roots of economic growth in India lie in ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (and if you’re thinking, but what about Information Technology and business processing, surely that’s not dispossessed, anyone? Please note that IT employs only 4 percent of India’s working population, and contributes only 7 percent of GDP). The human and ecological toll that economic liberalization has taken: displacement and destruction of habitats due to mines, dams, ports, nuclear reactors, special economic zones, and the fierce social movements against them, provide the context for my remarks here on culture, food and health.

The UNDP’s Human Development Index places India at 133 among 188 countries (Australia is second on the list). If we look specifically at hunger and malnutrition, the figures are far worse. UNICEF reports that 47 percent of all Indian children under five years show clinical signs of chronic under-nutrition. The figure is higher for girls, for children in rural areas, and among the historically oppressed Scheduled Castes and Tribes. While children’s access to nutritious food has improved a bit through state welfare programmes such as day care centres and school mid-day meals, these schemes do not address a fundamental issue: parents can’t provide adequate food at home because they don’t own assets or earn incomes that would enable them to grow or buy food.

Economic growth has brought material prosperity in many ways – mobile phones, television sets, motorcycles seem to be everywhere now – but it’s not always led to an improvement in nutrition. Since the 1960s, when the government invested in the Green Revolution (a package of hybrid seeds, irrigation, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides), India has been self-sufficient in wheat and rice, and that’s what gets supplied at subsidized prices across the country. Eating polished rice has led to an epidemic of Type-2 diabetes among rural and urban working-class populations. This food regime, backed by the international fossil fuel-agro-chemical complex, has edged out more nutritious and ecologically more sustainable cereals like the numerous varieties of locally-grown millets.

Even more worrying is the steep rise in mass-manufactured, highly processed industrial foods like biscuits and instant noodles, made with that glut of wheat and rice. Shiny plastic packets of these commodities are everywhere, thanks to multinational corporations’ brainwave of selling small, affordable units of their products in low-income areas, a strategy called finding ‘the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’. My current research is on Nestle’s Maggi noodles, a product wildly popular with children, adolescents and young adults. Why is this? Like other packaged junk foods, Maggi is the brand of modernity, and that means a lot in a sharply unequal country where food practices are divided by class, caste, region and gender. For poor, provincialized, low-caste or tribal youth, whose home-cooked food is stigmatized, sneered at and avoided by upper-caste people, eating Maggi is part of a social aspiration to consume like affluent Indians (as advertised by film stars on TV), to be a bit more like them. Deprived of so much else, their desire to eat these fun, glamorous food is a mode of seeking consumer citizenship, displaying that one belongs to the dominant food culture of the nation.

The second issue I will briefly touch on is the ongoing controversy in India around the consumption of beef (and, by extension, meat in general). Most Hindus, as you probably know, regard cows as sacred. So the fact that many Indians – Christians and Muslims, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities – eat cows has long been a thorn in the flesh of orthodox Hindus. With a Hindu nationalist government in power since 2014, there have been several incidents where vigilante Hindu cow-protection groups have attacked Muslims, beating and even killing them, on trumped-up charges that they were transporting cows for slaughter or keeping beef in their homes. This brutal cultural policing is part of a campaign to homogenize diets towards vegetarianism, the preferred diet of the upper-caste Hindu. While vegetarianism makes environmental sense in many contexts (including, as a way of fighting global warming), within India’s caste-stratified and religiously plural society, it serves only to deprive poor people of a protein-rich food that they need and enjoy.

Cows have traditionally been crucial to an agrarian economy powered by bullocks and fertilized by cow manure, and to diets in which milk products have been a major source of protein and fat. Today, India is the world’s largest producer of milk. Keeping cows as working animals, of course, also means killing them when they grow old or unproductive, killing male calves that don’t give milk, so a flourishing cattle trade has always accompanied dairying. Yet, because Hindu nationalist fanatics see beef as a stick to beat Muslims into submission, we have government policies that restrict cattle trade, which has already started hurting the agrarian economy. And herds of starving cattle roam the countryside, let loose by farmers who can’t sell them, a sad end to a supposedly sacred animal.

These two examples of the connections between culture, food and health raise complex challenges for our work on environmental justice.

Food is not just about biological nutrition within an ecological context, but about cultural desires, identities that speak to one’s heritage and to imagined futures. It’s about individual choices and collective modes of being and belonging. In a context where these aspects of food are shrewdly assessed and strategically deployed by powerful multinational corporations who not only cater to but in fact create what people want, the struggle for food that’s environmentally and culturally just is harder than ever. At the same time, what we’re fighting against is not just global capitalism but national movements that emphasize homogeneity and assimilation to a dominant norm.

Agrarian localism (support for growing and eating millets, as well as other fruit, vegetables and meats looked down upon as ‘peasant’ or ‘wild’ foods) are now emerging as a fashionable alternative, a distinguishing lifestyle statement by Indian elites even as these foods are less and less available to the people who depended on them, and are also less desired by them. Such ironies about the commodification of elements of endangered cultures occur across the world: indigenous peoples’ textiles, art, music and other artifacts circulate as fetishized, precious objects while the conditions of possibility for their production, indeed, the communities that create and nurture them, are erased. For environmental justice, we must support the struggles of those who strive to live and eat with dignity and pride, which means fighting for land, water and forests, and the nutritious traditions that flow from them, as well as demanding government policies that respect cultural diversity and social equity.


Amita Baviskar is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi. Her research focuses on the cultural politics of environment and development in rural and urban India.  Her first book In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley and other publications explore the themes of resource rights, popular resistance and discourses of environmentalism. She is currently studying food and agrarian environments in western India.  Her recent publications include the edited books Contested Grounds: Essays on Nature, Culture and Power; Elite and Everyman: The Cultural Politics of the Indian Middle Classes (with Raka Ray); and First Garden of the Republic: Nature on the President’s Estate. She was awarded the 2005 Malcolm Adiseshiah Award for Distinguished Contributions to Development Studies, the 2008 VKRV Rao Prize for Social Science Research, and the 2010 Infosys Prize for Social Sciences.