Veganism and the beefed up Indian economy

Joy Joshi

Men robed in saffron lead cows from house to house in Delhi asking for charity.

Their large and calm eyes invite those standing at their doors to approach.

With a faithful touch on their forehead smeared in vermilion, people pray for good luck.

They have served as the most favoured rides of Hindu gods and goddesses in the religious texts.

Today, they serve as election symbols.

Such is the power of a cow in India.

To an Indian, the desi (local) cow is a beautiful thing.

“Its matte skin tinted in a muted palette that runs from off-white to grey through beige and brown, its painterly silhouette with its signature hump, make it the most evolved of animals,” writes historian Mukul Kesavan.

A cow is a sacred animal for the majority Hindu community, and they amble unmolested in traffic-choked streets.

The animal is worshipped and decorated during festivals.

For the Hindus, a cow is like their mother and they will not have her harmed.

With such sentimental affection, the irony lies in the fact that the same country where cows are revered is the largest exporter of beef in the world.

Certainly, this ‘honour’ does not impress the local vegan community which continues to grow in India.

A cow on a street in Mumbai. Photo: Francisco Martins
A cow on a street in Mumbai. Photo: Francisco Martins

The religious sentiment attached to the animal is familiar to vegan activists like Varun Sharma, who conducts awareness campaigns about animal exploitation.

“They confront me with examples of Lord Krishna, who used to love butter”

“’How can we give up milk and butter, when it was our saviour, Krishna, who endorsed them?’ they ask me,” says the young vegan activist.

Though an atheist, Mr Sharma respects the religious beliefs shared by other people.

He goes out of his way to explain the suffering inflicted on farm animals and tries to bring a contrast between the days of Lord Krishna and the time we live in.

“That was a different era, there was more land, less people and a limited demand,” he said.

“A lot has changed – we have more stomachs to feed and less food to serve. Definitely, exploiting the animal turns out to be an obvious result.”

Mr Sharma, a 21 year ‘young’ vegan, as he likes to call himself, is an animal rights activist based in India.

He has been a vegan for the past two years and his transformation was never an overnight phenomenon.

For him it started in a similar way to many animal lovers.

Three years ago, he started following PETA India and became a volunteer.

Earlier, he considered vegans to be ‘extremists’ and deemed their lifestyle to be the ‘dullest possible.’ 

Until one day, on his journey from Dharamshala to Chandigarh in a regional transport bus, he came across a vegan practitioner from Belgium and was slightly impressed but not totally convinced by their conversation.

“I ignored it. I remember going out and enjoying mango shake the same evening.”

All through this time, Mr Sharma never stopped researching veganism.

Gradually, he came across  research which introduced him to another side of dairy products.

Finding the sources to be inadequate, he ended up ignoring them like he had ignored the Belgian.

Eventually, he came across a link to the documentary ‘Cowspiracy‘ on PETA India’s website.

Mr Sharma was stunned by the film.

“I verified the sources mentioned in the film (and) the research published was thought provoking and ground breaking at the same time,” he said enthusiastically.

“It made me question the purpose of my life and its true meaning.”

Mr Sharma decided to abandon all dairy products.

He never forced himself to do so, but instead credits the ‘psychological guilt’ he was going through after knowing the other side of dairy.

“Afghani omelette!” he says, as he recalls the last time he had eggs in late 2014.

“There was one crate of eggs lying in my room. After a night full of introspection and self-criticism, I used all the 24 eggs to make one last dairy based dish.”

A ‘best volunteer of the year 2016’ award nominee by PETA India, Mr Sharma conducts workshops on a vegan lifestyle.

He educates the masses about the health benefits of veganism and teaches them how to lead an ethical and sustainable life.

Something that he finds most disturbing among the Indian masses is their hypocritical approach towards sacred animals like cows.

“(The) majority of the Indians worship the cows like their mothers. I fail to understand why would any human being cause suffering to his own mother just for the sake of taste,” he says resentfully.

India is the largest producer of dairy products in the world housing  more than 75 million family owned dairy farms.

In the year 2015, the country produced around 150 million tonnes of milk.

In an action plan published by the Indian Government in 2014, dairy production policies focused on producing 180 million tonnes of milk by the year 2022.

Clearly, the government has no immediate plans to substitute milk production and they might have a good reason to back this up.

With an annual Gross Domestic Product growth of 7.5% in 2016, the country does not wish to risk its aim of standing neck-to-neck with developed nations.

Being the largest exporter of beef in the world, India generates good revenue through meat and dairy.

Since a large portion of the population depends entirely on the dairy industry, the Indian Government also proposes to double  farmers’ income by the year 2022, and in this dairy has an important role to play.

 “Doubling farmers’ income by 2022 is impossible without dairy farming which has an annual growth rate of 19.6%. 85% of the farmers in India who are marginal and small own 45% of the land, but 75% of the bovine,” said Nanda Kumar, the chairman of the National Dairy Development Board, in a panel discussion organised by the Free Press Journal forum.

“So probably for a landless person, dairying is one of the best occupations.”

Despite the government’s non-vegan approach, vegan activists in India are optimistic about their growth as a community.

“A tenfold increase has been seen in the number of vegans in India,” says Nandita Shah, founder and director of SHARAN or the Sanctuary for Health and Reconnection to Animals and Nature – a non-profit organisation with the goal of spreading awareness about ecologically sustainable lifestyles.

According to Dr. Shah advertising has a huge role to play.

She says that the milk agencies are government owned and well branded whereas vegan products still lack promotion but in spite of that, the movement is growing at the ground level.

Where Australia serves as the third largest vegan market in the world, India with its promising revenue generating policies may consider putting veganism on a hold.