By Nilanjana Goswami
As the latest in a long streak of controversial policies, a resolution was passed by the BJP-led South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) recently banning the display of meat and other non-vegetarian food outside restaurants. The reasons include the danger of contamination of raw and cooked meat dishes and the possible damage to the sentiments of the vegetarian public. The area under the jurisdiction of the SDMC includes hubs like Safdarjung, Hauz Khas, New Friends’ Colony, PVR Anupam Saket, Green Park, and Amar Colony Market near Lajpat Nagar –all famous for their bustling eateries popular with vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. This move has therefore been met with a lot of debate and protest from both political and civic factions.
The blueprint of the resolution
The resolution was moved by councillor Raj Dutt from Kakrola village in the Najafgarh Zone and backed by Nandini Sharma. Dutt remarked: “I have often received complaints from vegetarian people about chicken, goat, and fish being chopped in public, and the smell and blood causing nausea and offending them… plus, most of these people who hang animal carcasses outside windows and sell meat on handheld carts don’t have SDMC license. So this is one way of curbing them.” When asked about the kind of eateries that this resolution would cover, he added that dhabas, restaurants, crude meat shops, and barbecue stores in the South Delhi area would all fall under its purview.
However, officials from the SDMC’s Public Health Department brought up the issue of hygiene and commented about how exposing meat and non-vegetarian foodstuff in non-storage conditions for long periods of time would lead to toxic build-up and spoilage, adversely affecting the health of the customer. The chief medical officer of the SDMC, Dr BK Hazarika stated that “The flies, which move about on meat items on the roadside, are known to cause various diseases like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. Also, dust and germs settle on them and they become totally unfit for consumption.” He further added that “The restaurants are also mostly encroaching on the roadside on the pretext of barbecues. So we will manage to remove them. Importantly, not everyone is a vegetarian; we must keep their well-being in mind as well.”
Response to the ban: Unforeseen criticism
Restaurant owners came out in protest against this, but a significant faction felt that resistance was not of much use. According to many, succulent sheekh-kababs and tandoori meat displays were what drew the bulk of the customers to the shops. As such, the SDMC’s proposal is set to affect the small business owners significantly. Voices of dissent were also quite prominent. Sunil Malhotra, the owner of the Embassy Restaurant and ex-president of the Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI), said, “How will they stop non-vegetarian items being displayed and cooked in the open in, say, weddings? Plus, vegetarian items can also get contaminated in the open.” Members of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) and the Congress echoed this view. “If contamination of food is the concern then why to keep out vegetarian food and snacks out of this order,” KK Agarwal, president of the IMA, pointed out.
Abhishek Dutt, the congressional representative for SDMC, slammed the draconian proposal saying, “This is an interference of people’s personal lives. Just because the BJP has the majority in the house they cannot make such dictatorial decisions. If it’s related to hygiene they should challan those flouting rules. What is the need for bringing in such a blanket ban?” Dutt wanted the proposal to delve into details about its goal and purposes. “Failing to do so would mean the BJP is targeting a particular community and is likely to tighten the noose on those in the meat trade” he asserted. According to Dutt, opposing voices in the Congress representation were outnumbered by the BJP-leaders in the corporation and therefore could not stop the proposal from moving through. He also lambasted Aam Aadmi Party for acting ‘cautiously’ due to BJP’s greater representation in the civic body. As a revert to this, Greater Kailash MLA Saurabh Bhardwaj assured that AAP will come out with its views soon. At the same time, spokespersons from The Delhi Meat Association pointed out that a law stipulating the display of food-items (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian) under glass-cases in shops already exists. According to them, the proposal should have taken up the issue of the open sale of chicken and fish at roadside kiosks, which may even prove to be a larger hazard to the customer’s health.
Chairman of the Delhi Minority Commission, Zafrul Islam Khan, pointed out that meat is displayed in shops and not at restaurants. He raised concern over the statement of the resolution itself, calling the phrasing ‘vague’ and ‘unreliable’. Both the Congress and the AAP representatives shared the sentiment.
Political agendas incorporated
What should be noted here is that an ideological step is being taken under the guise of public-health awareness. The BJP government has mired itself in controversy pointedly regarding the food-habit of communities, especially with the mercurial beef ban, and its longstanding support of vegetarianism as a virtue rather than just a food-habit. Beef-related incidents and violence have grown exponentially in the past two years. Though it had to table its aim to ban the slaughter of cows in markets due to an incredible backlash from farmers and small traders, it has consistently sought to direct policy in a way that interferes with the private lives of citizens. In its hands, vegetarianism has become a hallowed and virtuous task, closely tied with the discourse of Hindutva, which sets down rules that dictate the tiniest details of a person’s choices and aspirations. Put in the political machinery, this vaunted ideology pops out in the form of diktats by the local government such as this.
It’s quite apparent that SDMC’s argument of public-health concern acts as nothing more than a veneer, used to coat the ugly reality of fundamentalist forces trying to gain ground. And this is how it is done: not through an overarching legal process, but from the grassroots up, tweaking things we think are inconsequential, working its way to the big picture. Especially strange is the argument that meat on display hurts the sentiments of vegetarians, and it also goes to show how far we have come along the streak of intolerance. If the very sight of a food-item stirs such deep revulsion in a person, doesn’t that say more about the person than the innocuous object?
Mixing food with communities
For as many communities with religious restrictions on the diet as India, the topic of appropriate food has always been a hotly debated one. Like many of our private affairs, our choice in food necessarily has had to carry political and religious overtones. Identities of communities are often set and made to revolve around their diet. However, it is the duty of a secular nation and its leadership to give all these communities a forum of discussion and exchange, not to drive a wedge between them by favouring a certain section over the other. Never has a central leadership gone to such extents to control and propagate ideology through this potent instrument as the current one. Therefore, the backlash should also be strong and sweeping. We should resist the attempt of ideology to infringe upon our personal choices outrightly and resist doubly those who are driving the discourse or supporting it in the political echelons.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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