The most pressing problem facing this country? Beef consumption.

Manmohan Singh recently commented on the results of a national survey by the Naandi Foundation that found that 42% of the children in this country are malnourished; he called it a national shame (that amounts to one out of every three malnourished children in the world). We’ve also recently learnt that the average Indian schoolkid fares slightly better than a Kyrgyz schoolkid at maths, science and reading. If this is news to you, it turns out you’ve just not been paying attention. The 2001 National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau report says pretty much the same thing. This was a decade ago. Yes, it’s good we’ve finally noticed, but that doesn’t make it news. The NNMB report also says that 37% of the adult population has a body-mass index (BMI) of below 18.5 – the clinical definition of chronic malnourishment. Moreover, the WHO’s definition of famine is that 40% of the population of a region be severely malnourished – Binayak Sen calls us a country living through a state of stable famine.

The above list, while shameful and depressing, isn’t even an exhaustive list of food-security related problems facing this country.

So what do you suppose the people running this country are most up in arms about? If you guessed cow-slaughter and how best to punish people who eat beef, you’re right. You may now award yourself a shameful bow. the people of Madhya Pradesh have given themselves a law banning all sale and possession of beef, with punishment that this country otherwise reserves only for its rapists and murderers. This in addition to Karnataka’s bill banning cow-slaughter which is now sure to also get the President’s assent (with presidents like these…). These laws allow police officers to raid and search premises on the suspicion that an offence may take place:

The Centre felt that raiding premises merely on the assumption that an offence is “likely” could be misused and recommended that such power be limited to cases when an offence had taken place or was taking place. The amended legislation has disregarded the recommendation.

The blatant disregard for minority opinion, civil liberty, and any trace of sense apart, this law affects the poor disproportionately – beef is the cheaper than almost any other meat. Calling this communal legislation is stating the obvious. Calling it legislating taste (a la Bill Maher) is more insightful, although it does nothing to help somebody being harassed by the local police officer for the suspicion of possession of beef.

Beef is now more contraband than a kilogram of ganja or 100 grams of hashish (punishment for possession of < 1kg ganja or < 100gms of hashish : Rs. 10,000 fine or 6 months in prison). Stash your beef away safely.

Dr. Binayak Sen at IISc

Concern – IISc, have managed to get Dr. Binayak Sen to come to IISc and give a talk – they call it ‘A Discussion with Binayak Sen’. The event is to be held in the Materials Engineering Auditorium today, Wednesday 18th January. It is quite something that people at IISc have done this. I of course will attend. It will be an honour to meet the man. I hope to get to ask him a question, the beginnings of an answer (a resolution, perhaps?) are already in my head.

There has been an ongoing debate on the institution of a Lokpal to curb corruption. Several protests, riots and fasts later, it is still predominantly an urban middle-class movement. The way you’d know that it is an urban-middle-class movement is by looking at what the definition of corruption being used amounts to: it deals merely with people being ticked off at having to pay their local venal government official. And while there is far too much of this for anybody’s liking, this says nothing at all about the staggering economic divide that exists in this country.

If every government office starts functioning honestly tomorrow, can we declare this country – one where half the people don’t have access to basic sanitation, where two out of five children are malnourished – free of corruption? Are these problems not symptomatic of the same malaise that also gives us epic-ally bad corruption ratings? Can we hope for a solution to the problem of corruption without bothering about the gaping class divide? Or can we hope to bridge the divide if we don’t allow for representation from the masses we seek to liberate (or, god forbid, the heathen we seek to civilise) ?

Like P. Sainath says, the hubris that is involved in assuming that a Nobel laureate is fit to decide policy for the governance of India is staggering.

I’m hoping Dr. Binayak Sen has something to say about the Lokpal debate.

NOTE: If you live on the JNC campus, special transport for this talk has been arranged. The bus leaves at 5pm.

(Non-vegetarian) Food for Thought

In the mid 20th century, as the cities in America became increasingly multi-racial, middle class families that lived in the cities decided to up and go somewhere else. “White flight” is what the mass exodus of predominantly white middle class families from the cities in America to suburban and exurban regions is called.

As a result of white-flight, American suburbs became bubbles where people grew up not knowing the baggage of slavery that black America carries, if for no other reason than that there weren’t any black people around. This has the peculiar effect that for somebody who grew up in suburban America without encountering racism, affirmative action today seems like racism against white people.

There is an analogy to be drawn between this effect of white flight and what has happened in the Indian context. For people of my generation who have grown up in educated households in India’s cities, casteism is an alien concept. Nobody in my family cares what caste my friend I’ve brought home for lunch is from. Caste simply isn’t something that we use to define people. It is easy for somebody who has grown up in an environment such as this to forget the emotional baggage that centuries of untouchability carries.

In consequence, regardless of how disproportionate the representation of the upper castes in high office, positions of power, and wealth and education in this country gets, people who have grown up in cities in our generation will see caste-based reservation as ‘reverse-casteism’ – casteism against the upper castes. Centuries of history are relegated to the friendly neighbourhood liberal historian’s next textbook.

A recent incident demonstrates this all too well for my comfort. There has been a demand that non-vegetarian food that is cooked on the JNC campus be cooked in a separate kitchen, and served in separate utensils. If that sounds unbelievable, I know the feeling. The most troubling part about this demand is that it has nothing to do, even ostensibly, with hygiene or taste but with how some people find the very idea of non-vegetarian food icky.

Vegetarianism in India is by and large handed to people by virtue of what religion and/or caste they happen to belong to (or happen to have belonged to: I know people who no longer identify with either the religion or the caste that they were given into by birth, but retain their vegetarianism). The ickiness that people feel about non-vegetarian food is, therefore, also given to them. More pertinently, how far people are willing to go to relieve themselves of this discomfort is symptomatic of their having grown up in the bubbles that are affluent upper-caste households in India’s cities. (It could of course be that people say these things because they don’t care all that much about political correctness. The argument I’m making is nevertheless valid because most people do care about political correctness.)

My beef (ha!) with this sort of thing isn’t limited to demands that separate utensils be used for non-vegetarian food in a common canteen. It’s actually deeper than that. I remember a demand in college that a separate vegetarian-only mess be created on campus. There were more than enough people willing to join this mess for the caterer to run the mess profitably. Some of us saw a problem with letting people seal themselves away from all diversity of creed, and with subsidising this process with public money. That I couldn’t have articulated why I thought the vegetarian-only mess was a bad idea (even) as well as I can now didn’t stop me from trying. It did, however, stop me from succeeding.

People enter college as adolescents; the education one gets is supposed to convert them into adults capable of critical thought, able to act their role in society. College should be a place where people make friends with people from other cultural and social backgrounds, where people learn to think beyond the ponds they’ve grown up to think the world of. Grad-school should be much more so.

Whether the demand is that people be allowed to cloister themselves into parochial groups that shun diversity or that all traces of diversity be sidelined even in the common environment, the effects are the same. There is nothing anti- or extra- legal about these demands, especially if there isn’t any public money involved. However, as public policy, they must be discouraged as strenuously as possible. A society that loses its diversity has nothing left to lose.

If the demand that separate utensils be used to cook non-vegetarian food were nothing more than a request that gravies of different types not be put together, one might be inclined to agree. But calling it that would be to call the American invasion of Iraq an attempt to free the Iraqi people: however plausible or otherwise you think the cover-story is, you just know that it isn’t the whole story.

Where does this end? Is there a line here which we are sure will not be crossed? If today we allow for non-vegetarian food to be cooked and served separately because some people can’t stand non-vegetarian food, what stops us from asking tomorrow that people eating non-vegetarian food not sit at the same tables as others? It will never get to that point, you might say, and I’d agree – at that point, nobody could deny that this was untouchability.

The point of being educated and in an institution of higher learning, surely, is to realise that this is what is happening, and to do it now.

Am I back?

Sort of…

My last post was well over a year ago. I hope to come back to blogging in the near future, although I will still not put blogging front and centre in life. Several things have happened in 2011, which I will hopefully get opportunities to get to.

We’ll start with something I wrote in response to a demand that non-vegetarian food be segregated in JNC’s student hostel.