Indians Say They Don’t Eat Meat, But Many Still Do
India is thought of as a vegetarian nation. Hinduism, practiced by about 80% of Indians, teaches non-violence towards all living creatures. Jainism and Buddhism also have many followers and advocate similar beliefs. However, the recent Indian census found that only 30% of Indians self-identify as vegetarian. Of these, about three-quarters are lacto-vegetarians, and a quarter are lacto-ovo-vegetarians. According to OECD figures, Indians currently consume about three kilograms of meat per year, although this is much less than the world average. Indeed, India is one of the fastest-growing markets in the world for chicken.
As a collectivist society, following cultural and moral norms is highly valued. Conformity creates harmony and avoids conflict. Since eating meat is taboo, breaking the rules can result in being shamed, ostracized, threatened, or abused. Indians even have a term for this behavioral violation, “non-veg,” which describes meat and the immorality it carries. Nonetheless, the rise in meat consumption throughout India is driven by rising rates of urbanization, higher disposable incomes, and wider cultural exposure.
To better understand some of these apparent contradictions, researchers looked at meat consumption practices among 33 urban Indians aged 23-45 years. Mumbai was home to 25 of the participants, while the remaining eight were recent arrivals in Sydney, Australia. Experimenters gathered data through semi-structured interviews to learn about “front stage,” or public, versus “backstage,” or private, meat-eating. They also explored how these consumption behaviors are changing, and the sociocultural factors driving the change.
Results showed that while meat consumption is increasing, the practice still carries a social stigma. Therefore, people display different front stage versus backstage dietary behaviors. For example, if they eat meat, they may do so in a private setting while publicly keeping a vegetarian identity. When eating non-veg, the strongest negative judgments may come from family. Thus, backstage meat-eating may occur outside the home in restaurants or in segregated spaces within the home. For example, one participant described cooking with eggs in the basement, away from her mother who couldn’t use the stairs.
Furthermore, urban Indians may live away from their families and so have more opportunities to sample the expanded, “Westernized” food offerings in a large city. The authors note that many people in India are eager to adopt trends from the West, meat consumption included. In fact, one participant explained that being called “traditional” instead of “modern and forward-thinking” is verging on a social taboo itself.
For animal advocates, these results may sound disheartening. Still, the authors note that animal and plant-based advocates have an opportunity to slow this trend. Indian religions have historically emphasized nonviolence, which advocates can use as a springboard for campaigns that show the staggering cruelty of Westernized animal agriculture. At the same time, they could work to make plant-based foods “cool” again by highlighting their recent uptake in the West. While younger Indian consumers seem to be rejecting many of the nation’s traditional practices, they may be receptive to forsaking meat if given a glimpse into the realities of meat production and a way to take a modernized, plant-based path. But we must act quickly before consuming meat becomes even more widespread across Indian society.