Narendra Modi, Baba Ramdev, others preach vegetarianism, but what is the meat consumption reality in India?

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Updated: October 24, 2016 7:11 AM

Religious beliefs have ensured Indians consume lesser meat than what should have been typical of income levels


In the eyes of the world, India is perceived as the largest vegetarian country. Presumably, this impression is created by our best brand ambassadors from political, spiritual and yoga circles. Prime minister Modi is a strict vegetarian, fasting for nine days during Navratra, and the world wonders from where he gets his energy to remain active and productive. The popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev and many other Hindu religious leaders too, are vegetarians, and preach vegetarianism.

But what is the reality? To know this, we dig into India’s largest household consumption surveys, conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) over 1993-94, 2004-05 and 2011-12, each time with a sample size exceeding 1 lakh households, with a one-month recall period. We define non-vegetarians as those consuming either eggs or fish or meat or any combination of these. By this definition, 62.3% of Indian households consumed non-veg food in 2011-12, up from 56.7% in 1993-94, and 58.2% in 2004-05. So, the trend is quite clear—non-vegetarianism is on the rise.

Recently, however, a Sample Registration System Baseline Survey 2014 was released by the Government Census office, stating that 71% of Indians are non-vegetarians as on January 1, 2014. But this study covers the population of above-15-years of age only, whereas the NSSO includes individuals of all age groups. Hence, the two are not comparable.

Which state would you guess as the most vegetarian state of India? If you are thinking of Gujarat, the home of Gandhi and Modi, think again! While Gujarat has a 28% non-vegetarian population, Punjab has an even lower percentage (23%) of its population consuming non-vegetarian food. However, the most vegetarian state of India is Haryana, with just 19% non-vegetarian households, and has remained so since 1993-94, as shown in the accompanying map. Green shades in the map represent vegetarian-majority states, while red shades represent non-veg-majority.

A state-wide analysis shows North Eastern states (the Seven Sisters) had the highest proportion (97%) of non-vegetarians in 2011-12, followed by West Bengal (95%), and Kerala (92%). Haryana had the least (19%), followed by Rajasthan (20%), Punjab (23%) and Gujarat (28%). A sharp increase in proportion of non-vegetarians is seen in J&K from 35% (1993-94) to 71% (2004-05), to 74% (2011-12), presumably due to the exodus of Hindus from J&K during this period.

While the trend toward non-vegetarianism is clear, what is interesting to note is the “chicken revolution”, as the proportion of households consuming chicken shot up from 8% in 1993-94 to 38% in 2011-12, while the fish-eating households hovered between 30-32% over the same period. The proportion of goat-meat (mutton) eaters has fallen significantly, from 30% (1993-94) to 15% (2011-12), whereas that of beef and buffalo-meat-eaters has remained more-or-less constant at about 6% over this period. Interestingly, the proportion of so-called “eggetarians” (those consuming eggs only) has fallen drastically from about 24% (1993-94) to merely 3.5% (2011-12).

A structural change in the poultry industry by organised large hatcheries like Venkateshwara and Suguna, by mainstreaming small-holders, seems to have ushered in the “chicken revolution”. As a result, broiler meat production rose from less than 0.2 million metric tonnes (mmt) in 1991 to about 2.47 mmt in 2011-12, and egg production from about 24 billion to 66 billion by 2011-12.

Normally, rising non-vegetarianism is attributed to increasing incomes and resulting diversification of diets for better and higher protein-intake. However, the Indian story may not be as simple. Religious beliefs have played an important role in keeping meat consumption much below what corresponding income levels would have otherwise suggested.

For example, Kerala and Punjab are both prosperous states with comparable per capita incomes, but Kerala has 92% non-vegetarians and Punjab only 23%. Across states, correlation between per-capita incomes and non-vegetarianism does not yield any positive results. The spread of religious movements from Arya Samaj to Radhasoami and Namdharis in Punjab seems to have played an influential role in restricting meat consumption. It is likely that vegetarians consume more milk for their protein requirement. The proportion of milk-consuming households increased from 70% (1993-94) to 81% (2011-12). India is the largest producer of milk (146 mmt in 2014-15), although per capita availability (322 g/day) still remains low.

Internationally too, among countries with comparable or even lower per capita incomes, India has the lowest level of per capita meat consumption at 2.9 kg/capita per year in 2015, of which 1.7kg/capita is poultry meat, as shown in the accompanying chart. Pakistan’s annual per capita meat consumption is four times that of India, with a lower per capita income than India.

What do these numbers indicate for food and nutritional security? Indians draw only about 1% calorie-intake and 3% protein-intake from eggs, fish and meat. Given the high incidence of malnutrition in India, especially among children, this is somewhat concerning for nutritionists. Will government policy promote egg or meat consumption for better nutrition? The chances are dim. But if it reduces import duty on chicken legs from 100% to say 20%, it can give a fillip to poultry consumption. Meat consumption will increase primarily through private sector initiatives such as of KFCs, McDonald’s, etc, which can ensure food safety requirements. Modernised well-equipped abattoirs would also help, as they have in making India one of the largest exporters of buffalo meat. Milk and milk-products, however, can be promoted by cooperatives with support from the government.

Further, since chicken rules the roost, not pork or beef, the feed pressure will be much less in India, as chicken is comparatively a more efficient converter of energy, with feed-to-meat ratio of 1.6:1, compared with 5:1 for pork and 7:1 for beef. This, coupled with low levels of meat consumption, will keep feed demand subdued. While the trend is increasing non-vegetarianism, vegetarians are certainly more benign creatures as far as the environmental health of the planet is concerned!

Ashok Gulati & Smriti Verma

Ashok Gulati is Infosys chair professor for agriculture, and Smriti Verma, a consultant, at ICRIER. Views are personal

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