Today's Paper

The food habits of a nation

Yogendra Yadav and Sanjay Kumar

Is India a predominantly vegetarian country? How are eating habits related to caste, community and region?The Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey throws fresh light on Indian attitudes to food, drink and tobacco.

New Delhi: Food habits and dietary preferences are of considerable interest to a wide variety of scholars. Those who study Indian culture have often wondered if the image of India as a predominantly vegetarian country is correct. Market analysts want to know about the new eating habits of the Indian middle class. Economists think of food as the measure of well-being. Despite such widespread interest, there have been very few attempts to study the food habits of the Indian population. The Hindu -CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey is one of the few such attempts. The poll, conducted between August 1 and 6, is based on interviews with 14,680 respondents, spread across 883 villages and urban areas in 19 States.

Off the mark

The survey confirms the widespread impression that the popular image of a vegetarian India is off the mark. The late Professor Kumar Suresh Singh analysed the data of the People of India project to show that a majority of our communities are non-vegetarians. The present survey fixes figures not only for communities but also for individuals and families.

The findings show that only 31 per cent of Indians are vegetarians. The figure is 21 per cent for families (with all vegetarian members). Another nine per cent of the population is `eggetarian,' or vegetarians who eat eggs.

Vegetarianism has a predictable pattern: women are more likely to be vegetarian than men and so are those above the age of 55. But there is no broad correspondence between age and vegetarianism. Among the young, the figure is only slightly below the national average.

The findings show that vegetarianism is a function of inherited cultural practice rather than individual belief. Religion and community matter: as many as 55 per cent of Brahmins are vegetarians. The corresponding figure for Adivasis is 12 per cent. Hindus who worship every day are more likely to be vegetarian, but the majority of all Hindus are non-vegetarian. Interestingly, eight per cent of Christians are also vegetarians.

Coastal States

The survey shows that regional location matters more than caste or community. As expected, the lowest proportion of vegetarian families are in coastal States such as Kerala (two per cent), Tamil Nadu (eight per cent), Andhra Pradesh (four per cent), Orissa (eight per cent) and Bengal (three per cent). Most land-locked States, especially in the west and north, are places with the highest proportion of vegetarian families: Rajasthan (63 per cent), Haryana (62 per cent), Punjab (48 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (33 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (35 per cent) and Gujarat (45 per cent).

The survey also throws light on some changing food habits due to the influence of `modernity.' Tea or coffee is consumed by 77 per cent of the people every day. Cold drinks are yet to catch up: only four per cent consume it every day. But this figure goes up to 30 per cent if irregular consumers are included. The consumption is markedly higher among the young. A little less than half of urban India and a little less than a quarter of rural India consume cold drinks.

Smoking is widespread. Twenty one per cent smoke cigarettes or bidis every day. But there is no evidence of the rise of smoking among the youth.

Similarly, there is no evidence that more youth are drinking. Thirteen per cent drink regularly or sometimes. The highest incidence is among the middle-aged (between 36 and 45 years) and among communities where there are no taboos on drinking.

But these findings could be an underestimation as nearly two-thirds of those polled believe that drinking has increased in their locality over the last decade. This is true even in Gujarat, where prohibition is in force. An overwhelming majority is in favour of state action to prevent the spread of alcohol consumption. Every survey conducted in the last decade has reported similar levels of support for state-enforced prohibition.

The Hindu -CNN-IBN survey also provides evidence on the nutritional quality of food and the extent of food deprivation. A majority report that the quality of their food intake is better than what it was 10 years ago and better than what their parents ate. The same is true of the intake of nutritional ingredients such as milk for children, and pulses and cereals. Many scholarly studies have pointed to the decline or stagnation in the consumption of pulses and cereals, but this is not reflected in the perceptions of the people. But there is an underclass comprising the bottom one-fifth that reports a decline in the quality of food consumption.

Alarming signal

The most alarming signal from this survey comes in response to a question about the experience of hunger. As many as 35 per cent say that, at least once during the last year, they or someone in their family could not have two square meals a day. Seven per cent say this happened `often.' This incidence is higher among the Dalits, the Adivasis, and the urban and rural poor. The survey is a reminder that hunger is not related only to natural calamities or famine. It is a living everyday reality in our country.

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