Guest post by SAJAN VENNIYOOR
The press is full of the India Human Development Report 2011 released by the Centre recently, and Gujarat figures prominently in newspaper headlines for reasons Mr. Modi is unlikely to quote in self-congratulatory ads. As The Telegraph put in tortured prose, Gujarat has a ‘Gnawing record fasting Modi won’t flaunt‘.
Kerala once again topped the Human Development Index. One of the more charming images that accompanied the story is from Rediff, which showed a fairly archetypal Kerala landscape with paddy fields, coconut trees and a cow. No humans, though, developed or otherwise. It struck me, then, that part of Kerala’s high ranking in the health and nutrition stakes may come from its willingness to consume all three: rice, coconuts and the cow. And thereby hangs a tale.
According to the Human Development Report, “High incidence of malnutrition among children is found among poor states. However, Gujarat, with a relatively high per capita income, witnessed a higher incidence of child malnutrition.” This gave rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, who released the report along with Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the opportunity to take a dig atGujarat, an opposition ruled state.
“On nutrition, I am puzzled as to why a high rate of malnutrition continues to persist even in pockets of high economic growth,” he said.
This anomaly was also picked up by the media, with headlines like “Malnutrition mars Gujarat’s growth story” (Times of India), “Gujarat fares poorly on malnutrition levels” (NDTV.com), “Human Development Ind: Gujarat worst” (Indian Express) and so on, undoubtedly confirming Mr. Modi’s suspicion that the English language media is out to get him.
The US Congressional report applauding Gujarat as “perhaps India’s best example of effective governance and impressive development” is now just a footnote.
Beyond some mild insinuations that both Mr. Jairam Ramesh and the Human Development Report were somehow targeting opposition ruled states — Karnataka and Jharkhand also came in for some criticism – the minister’s puzzlement at seeing high levels of malnutrition go hand-in-hand with high levels of growth inGujaratis not adequately addressed in news reports on HDI 2011.
This brings us back to the cow as food (Kerala) and the cow as friend (Gujarat).
Less than a month ago, Gujarat passed a Bill seeking a seven-year jail term for cow slaughter or even transporting the animal for that purpose, strengthening the existing Gujarat Animal Preservation Act which prohibits cow slaughter. The Bill was supported by the opposition Congress, suggesting that there is near-unanimous social and political consensus in Gujarat for protecting the cow.
Near unanimous, for the views of the Gujarati Muslim – nearly a tenth of the state’s population – were not recorded. Nor those of Dalits or Christians or those outside the mainstream Hindu community who may, unlike the nice shark of Finding Nemo, think of cows as food, not friends.
But Mr. Modi, famously vegetarian, no doubt has a similar narrative for Gujaratas the one put forth by Anna Hazare for Ralegan Siddhi: “We used to go to their [Dalit] area sometimes and sit in front of one house. People used to gather there, wondering how this high-caste person has come to their place. [W]e started telling them the reasons why people kept them at a distance. We said that the society condemns you because your living is dirty, your food habits are dirty, and your thinking is dirty. Therefore, you have to change. With such constant hammering, the Dalits were also made vegetarian.”
In Gujarat as in Karnataka, the ‘hammering’ could be quite literal.
A year ago, the Dalit writer and activist, Chandra Bhan Prasad asked the question which had so puzzled Mr Ramesh: why are rich Indians malnourished, too, especially rich Gujaratis? Mr Prasad observed that 44.6% children in ‘cash-surplus’Gujarat are malnourished, compared to 35% in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Commenting on the low levels of malnutrition in states where people enjoy a greater diversity of foods, especially fish, chicken and meat, Mr. Prasad noted that Gujarat has almost twice the level of malnutrition as Kerala (22.9%). In the south, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu fare better than Karnataka, which has the lowest intake of animal proteins – and highest level of malnutrition – among the southern states (see National Family Health Survey [NFHS-3], 2005-06). Not only do the women of Gujarat have some of the lowest consumption of fish, chicken and meat in India (12.4%) they also suffer significantly higher levels of severe anaemia (2.6%) than the national average of 1.8%.
Even without food inflation running at 10.6%, it probably costs more to achieve a balanced vegetarian diet than a non-vegetarian one, especially one that includes beef or pork. Beef costs much less than chicken or mutton in India, and is the “preferred source of first-class protein for the poor”, as Praful Bidwai and others have pointed out. It’s not merely for reasons of taste and habit that the poor, who are famously expected to live on Rs.32 a day, eat beef. Ralegan Siddhi’s Dalits, newly converted to vegetarianism, undoubtedly pay a very high price for giving up their supposedly impure but affordable and healthy food habits.
When push comes to shove, the religious right tends to position the ban on cow slaughter as an environmental and animal rights issue. But singling out the cow, as Bidwai says, is plainly duplicitous, for the law should then extend right across the animal kingdom, “to hundreds of animals and birds that are maltreated and vulnerable to abuse”. (This is a double-edged argument to make, as the then Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga warned: “If a bill banning cow slaughter is passed, it could set the ball rolling for efforts to ban the slaughter of pigs.”)
Gujarat is rightly under fire for its children starving in the midst of plenty, but food habits do not change in a hurry, even if they are a greater cause for malnutrition than poverty. But the extraordinary taboos on all kinds of food – both animal and vegetable – that is prevalent in the state could make it that much more difficult to give Gujarat’s children a decent meal.
That, and the 10.6% food inflation.