Nutrition carries political message in India
Published: Jun 21, 2017 05:48 PM

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

I came across an Associated Press report saying that the Indian government is advising pregnant women to avoid meat, eggs and impure thoughts in order to ensure the health of their baby.

This is not the first time that the Indian government has interfered in people's diet.

Two years ago, the chief minister of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, mostly vegetarian, rejected a proposal to serve eggs in government-run day care centers for children in some tribal areas, in a political move to win support from religious groups that object to eating eggs. The minister himself was an upper caste Hindu man who was also a vegetarian.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been advancing Hindu nationalistic actions which suit the principles of vegetarianism advocated by Hindus.

Statistics from the United Nations Children's Fund show that Indian women have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, mainly due to malnutrition. In 2015, 174 of every 100,000 pregnancies resulted in the mother's death, much higher than the figure of 27 in China. Therefore, doctors in India believe the suggestions proposed by the authorities are absurd and dangerous.

This episode once again reflects the two sides of a coin of this giant developing nation - it is moving fast to modernization while it is returning to religious traditions.

The rise of the Hindu religion has also caused a sharp decline in the export of Indian beef.

Hindus worship cows, except buffalo. For years, India has been a major buffalo meat exporter. The industry is worth nearly $5 billion.

Recently, the Indian government began to ban slaughtering buffalo in India, a move apparently to appease conservative Hindu nationalist groups.

The ban has severely affected the life of India's Muslim people. Many Islamic believers have lost their jobs, and the ban has cast a deep wedge between Muslims and Hindus.

In India, vegetarianism is not only a religious issue, but also a political one. Modi and his BJP favor Hindu nationalism in their policies, and thus have won the support of Hindus, which make up the majority of the country's population.

A report from the Indian Express on April 6 said that eight of India's top 10 states ranked by their preference for vegetarianism are BJP-ruled, and eight of the top 10 states ranked by their preference for non-vegetarian food are ruled by non-BJP parties, citing data from the Census of India's Sample Registration System Baseline Survey, 2014. The headline of the article has strong implications - A matter of choice: Eating veg, voting BJP.

Vegetarianism in India has not only affected the health of its people, but also cost its labor greatly. A friend of mine who has been living in India for years told me that some foreign enterprises are quite concerned about the nutrition of their Indian employees, because they cannot focus on work and finish it in due time despite being seemingly young and energetic.

India is a big agricultural nation and can supply its own food. It is able to improve the nutrition level of its people. Regrettably, the nutritional condition of its kids is even worse than that in countries such as Burkina Faso, Haiti and Bangladesh.

New York Times journalist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in a report two years ago, "India is the epicenter of global malnutrition: 39 percent of Indian children are stunted from poor nutrition, according to government figures (other estimates are higher)," and he called this "a remarkable failure of democracy."

Actually, this is not a matter of failure or success, but about what will happen when the West-advocated democracy meets India's religious traditions. Will modernization and secularism triumph over religious traditions or vice versa?

After all, the challenge India faces is not that there are not enough eggs and meat for pregnant women and children, but whether eating them is politically correct.

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina