Mahatma Gandhi Community Forum

"Good To Eat: Gandhi And The Ethics Of Food", by Amita Baviskar

[Transcription of Ahimsa Day Lecture, 2010]
Thank you Babli and Akshay, I'm honoured to speak here on this day, in memory of Mahatma Gandhi. I’m not a scholar of philosophy or history so I can't claim to be able to discuss Gandhi’s ideas from those perspectives. But what I do know a little bit is the issue of India’s environment and development and the cultural politics around these questions in our country.

And I’ve been more recently trying to address these issues of environment and development by looking at changing food practices because food brings together these ideas of who we are, what we do, what we want to become in the future, and has profound implications for what is going on in our cities, in our countryside, practices like eating out, how we grow our food, how it comes to us. And I thought I would use this opportunity to link these questions back to Gandhi’s own concerns with food and environment which come out very clearly both in his writings as well as in his life’s work. I should say that these are very preliminary thoughts and I hope that presenting them here will provide me with some clarity and will hopefully provide you with some food for thought as well.

I began, first of all, by thinking about Gandhi’s best known ideas: the notion of swaraj, of self rule, as something to be gained through ahimsa, non-violence, and satyagraha, the idea of a militant non violence, emphasizing truth, the idea of sarvodaya, or selfless service, and swadeshi or self sufficiency. But in this quest for swaraj or self rule, Gandhi emphasized that reforming the self was an essential precondition for changing the world. And the struggle with the self involved constant self examination of one’s thoughts and deeds, striving to control the senses and to channel them towards the pursuit of higher goals, a striving that is best described by the title of Gandhiji’s autobiography ‘My Experiments with Truth’. And for Gandhi, disciplining the mind also called for disciplining the body.

In the idea of swaraj, the self or the ‘swa’ that Gandhiji talks about, that is being referred to, is both collective self as well as an individual self, it’s all of society and it's each individual person. It's also both mind as well as body. And it’s only by changing this self - the collective self, the individual self, the self that involves the mind as well as the body - by changing this self by living and practising truth within oneself, Gandhiji believed, that we can aspire to change the world.

So for Gandhiji then, swaraj as a notion was a metabolic principle about disciplining the body, and how the body related to nature, as well as principle for political action. And if you look at Gandhi’s own practices, his concern with celibacy, his struggles around celibacy, fasting, different diets about which he wrote a great deal, not just in his diaries but in his letters to people, his concern with naturopathy, both Indian notions of Ayurveda as well as German ideas of naturopathy, and I believe very importantly his emphasis on manual work, the way in which work relates to the body and to one’s sense of the self, the dignity of say cleaning toilets and so on embodied very literally his concern with, and his attempt to, work out his beliefs in dialogue with the world around him. And these practices recognized that the body that we inhabit is all at once a sensory self, capable of feeling pain, pleasure, needing nutrition and so on. It's a product of history. We inhabit our bodies through practices and attitudes that we have inherited as a part of our culture, as well as a thing of nature.

So this idea of a sensory self, a thing of nature and a product of history, all these aspects have to be addressed simultaneously in the quest for swaraj. But there was a certain context in which Gandhi developed these ideas and worked them out. So what were the times that he lived in, and things that he believed in, and what challenges did he encounter in the quest for embodied swaraj? And how did his context, his challenges differ from ours? And much of my talk after I discuss Gandhi’s context is going to be, in fact, about our contemporary context, and the way in which these ideas are relevant today, and how we struggle to work them out in what we do.

In addressing these questions with respect to nature and the body we must begin by noting that Gandhi’s context was mainly one of rural, of village India: its diverse ecological contexts, its traditions of farming as well as traditions of healing, of dealing with the body. And yet, this rural India had undergone massive transformations even before Gandhi’s time, transformations that were speeded up by colonial rule.

So if you look at cropping patterns they were changed to accommodate new commercial crops like say indigo, or opium, or cotton and sugarcane, instead of cereals, or pulses, other things of daily use that people were growing. If you look at other kinds of goods, industrially manufactured goods were promoted at the expense of artisanal, locally made products-mill made cloth as opposed to say khadi and handloom. Western medicine was applied on a large scale especially through public health programmes and tended to supersede other indigenous systems of healing - Siddha, Unani, Ayurvedic, or the whole range of local practices that in fact defy these kinds of systematic labels.

New lifestyles and modes of consumption were also introduced at the time of colonial rule and they came to be emulated. And part of this was of course the dominance of western culture and civilization as a hegemonic project. But I also want to emphasise that many of these things were actually imposed. So if you look for instance at taxation policies you would see how industrially manufactured goods made in Manchester or Liverpool were given preferential treatment compared to Indian goods, goods produced by artisans. The same holds true for agricultural policies that actually forced people to grow certain crops, commercial crops, crops that were industrial inputs rather than growing food.

The same holds true for food. So if you look at something which is today such a common beverage like tea. Tea was unknown in India till the British brought it in, and when they found that the British market for tea had been saturated, they made a concerted effort to try and get Indians to drink tea. So there were massive publicity campaigns including demonstrations, going to people's homes, in the railways, giving people discounts on tea, giving them free samples, all to encourage them to take up the habit of drinking tea, tea which has now become ubiquitous but which is of dubious nutritional value. And all of these sorts of transformations in lifestyle which Indians also took on gradually, were first quite systematically…these campaigns were conducted by British firms and to encourage Indians to take on new lifestyles.

Now the sum total of all these changes is hard to pin down, but one thing that I do want to focus on today is that they did induce a major crisis of confidence among Indians, which is to say that British domination came along with the full force of western science and technology, and the superiority of this science and technology was reiterated in a variety of ways. If you look at education, Macaulay’s dismissive statements about Indian knowledge and learning, if you look at other sorts of fields too, it was very clear that the British implicitly believed that their mode of knowing the world, of engaging with it, was far superior to Indian modes. And not only was this related to science and technology, but it was also the assertion of the superiority of western civilisation as a whole, its values and not just the artefacts or techniques that it produced.

So how did Indians challenge this equation between imperialism and the idea that colonial rule was about civilization and improvement, improvement of Indians and their landscapes?

Now different nationalists marshalled different arguments. One, the theory of economic drain and impoverishment, the theory that is best summed up in Dadabhai Naoroji’s book titled ‘Poverty and Un-British rule in India’, the idea of a drain of wealth. Second, Indians emphasized the aspect of political rights that you need to have equality for all subjects, the right to political representation for instance. But with Gandhi, we get these arguments about economic and political rights as well as a profound philosophical critique that addresses the question of civilisational values as well as economic and political inequality and injustice. And this critique of, and challenge to, western hegemony was based on questioning western ethics in relation to the subjects of empire, both human subjects, ordinary people as well as its natural and ecological elements. And it is this social and ecological critique, a challenge to those in power, but I believe equally a challenge to one’s own self, the idea of swaraj that we come back to, that I think has great contemporary relevance for one’s own practices of mind and body in India today. So if Gandhi’s context was dealing with colonial ideas, the imperialist force that under-girded science and technology, what is our context today?

To all appearances, we have swaraj. We believe we are a democracy, we rule our selves, we are a sovereign state and nation. But ahimsa or the idea of non violence and swadeshi or the idea of self-sufficiency seem to have been lost sight of. So let me now discuss these two ideas, ahimsa and swadeshi, these values in relation to the food that we eat and our bodies.

And if we look at what is happening with Indian agriculture today and with products of that agriculture coming to us and what we eat, we see that there has been a profound shift from Gandhi’s times. For one, agriculture is in fact heavily industrialized. Many of us including students, most often students of economics, grow up with this sort of traditional division: there is industry and there is agriculture. But if you look at agriculture today it is actually heavily industrial in terms of the ways in which it consumes industrially produced things like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the way in which it consumes large amounts of energy like any form of fossil fuels for running tractors etc., but also electricity which is produced through extremely capital intensive units like dams or for that matter power plants, energy that is used to extract ground water to pump from dams and so forth.

And this extremely resource-intensive form of agriculture is made possible by extracting minerals, by extracting resources from landscapes around the world and therefore if you look at the ecological footprint of the kind of industrial agriculture we are talking about, it actually spans across the world and this is true in fact not only of countries like the United States but also of India. And the toll that it takes in terms of the extraction of water, the transformation of landscapes, the ways in which these transformations affect people who get displaced, is enormous.

And this kind of intensive agriculture when it has yielded from the 1960s onwards fairly high yields of certain kinds of crops, has also resulted in depleting and degrading soils, in disappearing water. So if you were to for instance go to Bharatpur bird sanctuary today, you’ll find that there are hardly any migrant birds because there is no water. So where’s that water going? The water is being used up by farmers to grow water intensive crops in the area and it has been at the cost of removing, of killing off one of the best wetlands which attracted birds from as far away as Siberia.

So there is this problem of soil and water loss, losses which cannot actually ever be addressed or replaced or in some way taken care of. There are problems of chemical run-off, of pesticide deaths and we know of the great occupational hazards faced by agricultural workers. But what is often not realized is the huge toll that it’s taking on all kinds of wildlife. So if you look for instance up at the sky in Delhi today
you are unlikely to see a single vulture. But any of you who’s been in Delhi from say fifteen years ago would remember in the winter sky you’d always see vultures slowly circling around. And in fact there
was a tree opposite IP College closer to Ludlow Castle, a silk-cotton tree which used to have a whole family of about forty vultures nesting on it.

Now in all of India vultures which had numbers which used to be in the hundreds of thousands have come down to a few hundreds. And this is a crisis that affects not just wildlife but also humans because if we don’t have vultures you don’t have scavengers that are taking care of dead carcasses in rural areas, it’s a public health issue as well. But why have vultures been dying. Well most of them have been found to die because they have been affected by muscular disease, because of a chemical called Diclofenac, which is used as a painkiller, and this painkiller is given to cattle, to cows and bullocks, but primarily to cows and in some cases to buffaloes.

Why are buffaloes and cows being given painkillers? They are being given painkillers because they're given another chemical called Oxytocin which in human beings is given to induce contractions at the time of delivery of babies, but which in cattle also induces contractions which get cows and buffaloes to yield more milk. So you’ve taken your cow and your buffalo, you’ve turned it into a milk-producing machine, you give it chemicals so that it produces more milk. Those contractions cause great pain to the cow and buffalo. Then you pump in another chemical namely Diclofenac, in order to ease that pain, and in the process you end up killing vultures as well. And this is only one kind of crazy logic that seems to work when it comes to agriculture today.

If you look for instance at agriculture in Europe as well as North America, one of the biggest problems that they face today is mass death of bees. And without bees there is no pollination. And bees are dying for reasons they can’t fathom, because of chemicals in the environment, because of perhaps radiation from satellite towers because of cellphones we use, nobody knows. But the thing is that there is something extremely wrong in the environment that we have created which is directly hurting one of the most fundamental things that we need in order to keep the cycle of agriculture, food, flowering, the reproduction of plants, the feeding of humans, alive, namely this the ordinary honeybee.

Now these kinds of changes are in some ways a sign of the great… in a way the toxicity of modern life, that we are eating ourselves up, we are eating up our environment, and in the process destroying ourselves. This is autophagy. More disturbing things from the point of view of human impacts. If you look for instance at the use of bovine growth hormones in milk you find that already in countries like the United States little girls have started menstruating now at the age of seven and eight as opposed to twelve or thirteen as used to be the case earlier. If you look at dead bodies in graveyards, they take longer to decompose because of the build-up of preservatives in the body because of eating processed foods. So both life, menstruation and puberty, death, all seem to be caught up in these chemical cycles, the rise of huge numbers of cancers etc. is also something that is noticeable and is part of both our environment as well as our agriculture.

If you look at for instance at India and if you look at chicken farming, chicken being the fastest growing form of meat consumed in India today you’ll find that a poultry farm is actually an industrial operation where chickens are treated to a concentrated regimen of antibiotics, hormones to make them grow as fast as possible. So we’re no longer treating pigs, cows, chicken as animals, we’re just treating them as these bundles of chemicals that then come to our table.

And of course with growing affluence, especially in India and China there has been an increase in the consumption of meat, and this means in agriculture instead of growing food crops like cereals or pulses etc, we’re growing more feed crops. So for instance a country like Mexico which primarily used to have a diet of corn, corn-based tortillas, or beans is now growing a lot of jowar and bajra, sorghum and millets, and you might wonder why, why jowar and bajra, they don’t normally eat it. Well all of these particular crops which are actually eaten in India by poor people are being used as animal feed in the industry to produce more pigs and cows which are then slaughtered for meat. So we also have this paradox now, that we have mountains of food which are produced because of industrialized agriculture. At the same time we have starvation deaths, because industrialized agriculture marginalizes the small farmer and the landless labourer, who cannot participate in it because it is too expensive, the inputs, they cant afford to buy it because they don’t have the cash and in fact what they face with this kind of agriculture expanse is in fact growing displacement because the kind of water this needs, the kind of energy this needs means building more dams, more power stations and in fact removing people from the land as much as possible.

So what do these kinds of agricultural practices mean in terms of ahimsa and swadeshi because food production today is in fact a form of violence against nature. It’s not working with nature which is what agriculture traditionally has been but its working against nature, dominating it for personal gain. It’s also the antithesis of the idea of swadeshi or self-sufficiency. Those of us who can afford it now marvel at the fact that we can get Turkish pasta and Malaysian frozen paranthas or American-style potato chips in our neighbourhood grocery store, you know the retail chains which have also started. We like the convenience and the consumer choice of getting say New Zealand apples through the year or strawberries and broccoli, or for that matter getting cauliflowers in summer whereas cauliflower used to be a winter vegetable in north India. And karela in winter, karela used to be one of the summer vegetables.

It’s good to have all of this choice we think, but where is this food coming from? Who is growing it, and under what conditions? And to use a concept which has become very useful, for thinking about these kinds of connections, how many food miles has the food we buy travelled. If you look at Europe, they are getting green beans from Kenya, they’re getting cut flowers from Ecuador, they are getting beef from New Zealand or Venezuela. These kinds of things of course have major impacts on the environments and the people which are feeding and providing these kinds of resources and products to rich consumers. So if you look at the Amazon for instance, large portions of the rainforest were cleared in order to create grasslands where beef cattle could graze. Beef that was then shipped to the United States where fast food chains like McDonald's used it to make cheap burgers. So if there is a subsidy, if you can buy a cheap burger in McDonalds, its at the expense of a cost which is not being enumerated, which you’re not paying for, namely the destruction of ecological landscapes as well as the destruction of lifestyles. That in Mexico, small farmers growing rice and beans are being displaced by the fact that you’re now growing all kinds of feed crops to fatten animals which would then be exported for meat.

Now apart from these kinds of local social and ecological effects, the environmental impact of long distance transport, with fuel that it takes to bring in strawberries from Bangalore or apples from New Zealand the global warming that is caused by this kind of transport network is actually huge. And what also then needs to be looked at is the related issue of the fact that much of this food has far less nutritive value than what is grown locally, what is fresh, what is not processed, what is not preserved.

Much of this literature that talks about these kinds of patterns of consumption around the world focuses on the countries of the global north on North America and/or Europe. But if you look at India the same sort of thing is being replicated, the same pattern is being replicated on a smaller scale. And if you go to any affluent area in Delhi, South Delhi, or even your local market here near Exchange Stores, you’ll find that there are these sort of global and distant sources of our food which we are now increasingly consuming without taking into account their ecological impacts or their social impacts. And with liberalization
this form of consumerism is now thought of as a right. If in an earlier time Tilak said ‘swaraj maza janma-siddha hakka aahe’ that ‘swaraj is my birthright’, I think today’s generation probably declare that the right to consume is its birthright.

And the kind of sociality that we now all participate in, our idea of…well how do you meet friends? You meet in Café Coffee Day. What do you do? You drink Coke or Pepsi or you drink alcohol. What do you like to eat? You like to eat pastries and pizzas. Or if you go to a canteen today, a canteen that would earlier serve you freshly made pakode or something, now along with the freshly made pakode you have Maggi noodles. So each of these things represents a profound shift in our diets, in terms of both the nutritional part of it which people actually sometimes do pay attention to but also it tells us something about the way in which food production systems have changed. Who’s growing this food? Do we know that? Who makes Maggi? We know Nestlé makes Maggi noodles. Where is it being manufactured? What goes into it? We don’t know that. Whereas with pakode you can sort of see this is besan, it came from here, these are vegetables or this is the oil and so on. But there is a huge change in terms of the circuits of resource extraction that different kinds of consumption actually entail.

Consumerism of this kind has also gone along with a new kind of shift in the ways in which we think of our bodies. And I think our notion of what is healthy and our notion of what is beautiful has also changed. So if you’re reading page 3, film magazines etc everybody knows about the size zero figure, lots of people aspire to the size zero figure by going in for diets and I don’t know…working out and so on.

But this very idea that you work out in a gym is actually quite different from Gandhi’s idea of the dignity of work, that when you work, and that is to say you do productive manual work of cleaning something, or creating something, when you sweat it out…that’s a very different kind of body that is produced than the perfectly toned, glossy body that you get by working out in the gym. It’s a very different way of relating to the world and to oneself.

So somewhere along the way the idea of disciplining the body - and if you work out in the gym that is also a form of discipline, it’s a way of pushing yourself and becoming fitter and so on - but somewhere along the way, this idea of disciplining the body and controlling the senses has changed. Its goals have changed. And Gandhi’s concern, at some point you might even say obsession, with diet, what you put inside your body and also actually what you take out, was motivated by a notion of wholeness and balance. I think the idea of diet and dieting today means very very different things, where the connections with the environment, the connection with one’s own self as well as with other people is now radically different.

So when thinking abound contemporary consumerism around food, around practices of the body, it’s important to remember that Gandhiji actually refused to make a distinction between the violence of consumption and communal violence. And about the British empire, he is known to have observed and I quote here that ‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism in the manner of the west. The ecological imperialism of a single tiny island, namely Britain, is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of three hundred million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts’.

In this context it's important to remember that three hundred million is what he was talking about at that point which is approximately the size of India’s upper class, our middle class and our elite. This middle class has taken very happily to all manner of consumerism and what we see therefore is a pattern of colonialism being enacted by India both on its own citizens, if you look at internal colonialism in central India, in the north east, where resources are being extracted at a frantic pace by dispossessing people as well as international colonialism, now you have Indian firms buying up areas in Africa in order to be able to make sure that they get access to resources in competition with China.

So I want to conclude by saying well what do these kinds of practices tell us about ourselves today? And more important, how can we, by thinking about them, by reflecting about them, change what we do? How does one apply the concepts of ahimsa, swaraj and swadeshi to one’s own body and to one’s life, even the most basic and yet profound everyday practice of eating food?

For people like us who come from relatively well-off backgrounds, I think the basic thing is to consume less, because in very many we are being able to be self indulgent, and we need to think about where that food comes from. Think responsibly about the ecological consequences of producing that food and be very careful about what we eat, what we consume, and how much.

At the same time we need to also think of all of those, the poorest people who Gandhi reminded us about all the time, who need to consume more and whose access to reasonable nutritious food is actually being taken away. And we need to help them get that basic access. When you look at rates of malnourishment and hunger across rural India and some parts of urban India as well, it’s a very sorry reminder of the way in which we have failed ourselves as a nation and failed Gandhi as well.

But the important thing I believe one must do, is to in very small ways and in the everyday, ask questions and think about where your food is coming from, how it is grown. Talk to the sabziwala, try to find out a little bit more about where these things… you know read the information on the packages but also try and go beyond it and find out how things are grown, how they are processed and how this process of production treats all the constituent elements without which we cannot live—soil and water, minerals, plants, animals and people.

And it’s only by probing this kind of politics of food, and the ethics of food, by looking at how we come to be drinking Coke instead of chhachh or dabh or nimbu pani or something, how we come to be drinking water that comes out of bottles like these and not tap water. How come our idea of having a good time always involves alcohol, all of these things, or our idea of good food involves lots of sugar and starch and fats…

Just thinking about these and being a bit more careful about the kind of things we get as choices I think will be a very small but important way of appreciating and respecting Gandhiji’s legacy and trying to bring his practices into our own lives today.

Thank you.

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