Wednesday, Jul 06, 2022

What's On Your Plate? The Legal Aspect Of Food Controversy In India

India has always seen the politicisation of food culture, whether in mid-day meals or the food on a poor man’s plate. Such politics are intertwined with caste and religious politics.

How caste, religion and politics impact food in India
How caste, religion and politics impact food in India Shutterstock

Food which is an essential form of expression of any individual’s choice has time and again turned the political wave in India. Making a case for vegetarianism on the basis of ethics is problematic. The recent move by the Karnataka government to include eggs in mid-day meals has sparked debate. The decision, which was largely applauded by teachers and parents of all religions and castes, was anticipated to promote school attendance as well as improve the health of malnourished children. According to reports, an internal poll conducted by the Additional Commissioner of Public Instruction (Kalaburagi division) discovered that roughly 80 per cent of children were willing to eat eggs in their midday meal. 

Article 21 of the Constitution of India, which protects a basic right to life and personal liberty, should be read in conjunction with Articles 39(a) and 47 to comprehend the nature of the State’s duties in order to ensure the effective implementation of this right. Article 39(a) of the Constitution, enunciated as one of the country’s Directive Principles, requires the government to direct its policies toward ensuring that all citizens have access to a sufficient means of subsistence, while Article 47 states that the government’s primary responsibility is to improve the people’s nutrition and standard of living. For citizens, living in conditions of poverty, have often suffered from malnutrition. 

India has always seen the politicisation of food culture, whether in mid-day meals or the food on a poor man’s plate. Such politics are intertwined with caste and religious politics. However, it cannot be denied that the issue is one of health and nutrition rather than politics. Meat and eggs from the mid-day meal programme are designed to give nutritionally balanced food to children attending government schools, helping to prevent malnutrition in young children.

The irony is that the decision to exclude eggs from mid-day meals is frequently made by those in positions of authority, despite the fact that their children do not attend government schools and thus do not benefit from these programmes. Children from underprivileged sectors, attend government schools and require the nourishment that mid meals attempt to offer, but unfortunately, these beneficiaries are not represented. 

The linkage of food and education
The linkage of food and education | Credit: Getty

Indian courts have often stated that food is a matter of personal choice that should not be regulated. In 2018, the Healthy Wealthy Ethical World Guide India Trust filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) requesting that the government and private parties prohibit the export of all sorts of meat (including cattle, fish, swine, and poultry) and associated items. During the case, a bench of Justice Madan Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta stated that it could not make an order mandating that everyone become vegetarian. In 2019, a bench led by then Chief Justice of India of the Supreme Court of India Ranjan Gogoi dismissed the petition. 

The Madras High Court’s Madurai bench delayed the central government’s announcement prohibiting the selling of cattle for slaughter at animal markets in 2017. The notification stated that cattle sold at animal markets can only be used for agricultural and other reasons, and that cattle sellers must guarantee that the animals sold at markets would only be used for agricultural purposes. The selling of cattle for slaughter at animal markets is prohibited under the rules enacted under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The stay imposed by the Madras High Court was later prolonged by a court led by then-CJI JS Khehar, who stated that “the livelihood of people should not be affected by this.” 

Furthermore, in the case of K. Gopinath v. The Commissioner, Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments, the court deliberating on the said matter opined that there exists no law in India that prohibits anyone from eating non-vegetarian. Chipping into the controversy that has been raging, the Division Bench of S. Manikumar and C.T. Selvam, JJ., dismissed the instant public interest litigation praying for the writ of mandamus thereby directing respondents to remove the shops selling and eating beef. With no Indian law touching the eating habits of people belonging to different religions, the Court refused to accept the argument of the petitioner that eating non-vegetarian food is an offence 

In order to develop remedies for the debate, a unipolar approach is required. Apart from focusing on prevailing hegemonic practises that define our country’s food politics. Instead, the emphasis should be on the nutrition diet.

(With additional reporting by Sukriti Shrivastava) 

(Aditya Manubarwala, a LL.M graduate from the University of Cambridge is an Advocate practising at the Supreme Court of India. Views expressed are personal)