Editorial feature: Indian diets & the future of animal welfare
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2007:
Old news and ancient history have rarely been more relevant
to the future of animal protection than in Chennai, India, in early
Approximately 350 delegates attended the fourth Asia for
Animals conference. Representing more than 20 nations, many
delegates had never before been to India. Yet the journey was a
philosophical pilgrimage, the conference itself a homecoming.
India is where pro-animal religious and philosophical
teachings apparently began, where animal shelters and hospitals were
India is also the second most populous nation in the world,
with the fastest-expanding economy, greatest rate of growth in
material acquisition, and second-greatest rate of growth in meat
consumption, behind only China.
India and China, having between them more than 40% of the
global human population, are where the future of animal welfare will
Asia for Animals 2007 added two days of activity to the
schedules of past editions held in Manila (2001), Hong Kong (2003),
and Singapore (2005).
A pre-conference seminar promoted improvement in the Animal
Birth Control programs, the nine-year-old Indian national strategy
for sterilizing and vaccinating street dogs.
A post-conference session formed a steering committee chaired
by Arpan Sharma of the New Delhi ABC program Samrakshan to organize a
proposed new national umbrella for Indian animal welfare societies.
While the government-appointed Animal Welfare Board of India
partially funds and loosely guides the activities of the 2,365
currently recognized Indian pro-animal organizations, through a
traditional from-the-top-down structure, the new umbrella would seek
to provide the cause with a representative collective voice.
The meeting convened in the auditorium of the C.P. Ramaswami
Aiyar Foundation, near a stone that marks where advocates for Indian
independence from Britain published their first newspaper. Few
examples of articulating nonviolent ideals have had a greater
One example that did, however, came between 2,500 and 3,000
years ago, when the Bishnoi people of the Rajasthan desert, and
their neighbors, the Thari and Sindhi, adopted vegetarianism and
the belief that animals should never be harmed.
Only traces of the Thari and Sindhi vegetarian cultures
persist among their descendants today, many of whom are Muslim
residents of Pakistan, but the Bishnoi culture appears to be almost
unchanged, tolerating wildlife to the extent that Bishnoi villages
serve as mini-wildlife sanctuaries.
Similar teachings were advanced by the Jains. The Jain
teacher Mahavir and his contemporary Siddharta Gautama, called the
Buddha, emphasized vegetarianism and compassion for animals.
Mahavir is credited with either introducing or popularizing the cow
shelters, called gaushalas or pinjarapoles, that have been a
feature of Indian life ever since.
International animal advocacy outreach appears to have begun
circa 250 B.C., when the Buddhist emperor Asoka enshrined animal
protection in the Indian civil code, and sent his son Arahat
Mahindra on a missionary expedition to Sri Lanka. On arrival,
Arahat Mahindra interrupted a hunt by King Devanampiyatissa,
persuading him to give up hunting and create a wildlife sanctuary.
Both Asoka and Arahat Mahindra sent emissaries on to Thailand.
The legacy of those times is troubled, but still very much alive.
Asia for Animals 2007 speakers discussed, among other
topics, the misuse of Bishnoi habitat by poachers, including the
actor and onetime World Wildlife Fund calendar conservationist Salman
Khan. Animal Welfare Board of India president R.M. Kharb focused on
updating and revitalizing cow shelter management. Some speakers also
addressed the perversion of the Buddhist custom of temple monks
sheltering animals into the practice of keeping elephants and other
species as visitor attractions.
Pro-animal outreach of note from India resumed in the 12th
century A.D. with the Cathari, a vegetarian sect probably descended
from the Thari. Cathar teachings spread from Persia through Europe
from the Balkans to France, undercutting support for the Catholic
Church, until the Church exterminated them in the Albigensian
Crusade of 1233 and founded the Inquisition to ensure that Cathar
ideas were permanently repressed.
Already the Cathari had profoundly influenced St. Francis
(1182-1226), and Richard of Wyche (1197-1253), a Bishop of
Chichester who attacked the morality of slaughter and appears to have
been the first English animal rights advocate.
Six hundred years later, British military officers posted to
India encountered pro-animal teachings and returned to England to
found the London Humane Society in 1824, re-chartered in 1840 as the
Royal Society for the Protection of Animals.
In 1947, at request of Rukmini Devi Arundale, who later
became the founding chair of the Animal Welfare Board of India, and
with the approval of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharal Nehru wrote into the
constitution of India that “It shall be the fundamental duty of every
citizen of India to protect and improve the Natural Environment
including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have
compassion for all living creatures.” This provision remains unique
in national constitutions.
Indian moral leadership on behalf of animals has not yet
extended to international institutional leadership, but that may be
changing, as Indian animal advocates increasingly discover through
conferencing and electronic networking that they have more expertise
than they tend to imagine.
Restoring vegetarian prestige
Asia for Animals 2007 focused, like past editions, on the
challenges and opportunities resulting from the explosive growth of
the Asian human population, and the even faster recent growth of
Asian economies. The Indian population, for instance, has more
than tripled since 1947, while the total value of the Indian economy
has doubled since 1990.
Apprehension of what might happen to animals if factory
farming continues to displace traditional farming, and if Asians eat
more meat, often expressed at past Asia for Animals conferences,
largely yielded in 2007 to recognition that the displacement has
already occurred, for the most part, along with the feared rapid
rise in meat consumption.
Even in India, where more than half the human population
professed to vegetarianism just 20 years ago, barely a third are
vegetarian today. There are more vegetarians in India today than
ever, but they tend to belong to the Brahmin, Jain, and Buddhist
minorities, whose birth rates are much lower than the birth rates
Inevitably, billions more animals will be raised and killed
in miserable conditions. Already nearly 50 billion animals per year
go to slaughter, worldwide, more than 90% of them chickens. This
total could double before the Indian and Chinese human populations
and meat consumption stabilize.
Dismaying as all this is to people who care about animals,
who had hoped for better, there may have been little that animal
advocates could have done to prevent it. Only after the existing
demand is satiated are vegetarian and vegan advocates likely to
persuade meat-eaters to reject the opportunity to eat as much meat as
they always imagined they wanted.
Of greater concern to the longterm prognosis for weaning the
world away from meat, animal advocates until recently lacked
arguments against increased production and consumption of meat that
resonated as well in Asia as in better fed parts of the world.
People who have already rejected Hindu or Buddhist vegetarian
teachings, for instance, are unlikely to be swayed by other moral
and philosophical contentions.
People who have felt they often did not get enough to eat
tend to be oblivious to arguments based on the health effects of
Arguments against animal husbandry in societies where plant
crops are produced mainly by hard hand labor tend to sound to the
hungry poor like prescriptions for more difficult work and less to
The Animal Welfare Board of India in December 1997 marked
the 50th year of Indian independence by holding a conference in Delhi
that marked the first meeting of many of the Asia for Animals 2007
participants. Speaker after speaker described the potential impacts
of factory farming and the introduction of biotechnology to India.
Some accurately anticipated the corrosive effect that the growth of
the Indian biotechnology sector would have on protections for
Yet the only recommendation offered for countering either
factory farming or biotechnology was that animal advocates should
endorse and promote traditional agricultural methods that had already
failed to produce adequate abundance.
Promoting vegetarianism, which could feed the world with
vastly less animal suffering and less demands on resources, was in
1997 cripplingly linked to Gandhian notions that the modern world can
still rely on bullock carts and biogas for transportation and energy,
and that the cost of improving animal welfare must be renouncing
technological progress. Cows’ urine was offered as a panacea for
practically every ailment that biotech might address.
Implicit in the Gandhian arguments, resoundingly made by
elderly men in homespun clothing, was the expectation that India
would always need to find work for millions of poorly paid illiterate
field hands, and that shaping dung cakes for fuel might always be
the most lucrative work available to uneducated rural women.
Perceiving themselves as defenders of the poor, the
Gandhians reduced the potential for improving animal welfare to such
matters as abolishing cow slaughter, with scant attention to the
plight of other species; reforming the management of cow shelters;
and equipping work animals with more comfortable harnesses.
Such efforts are still needed throughout much of India, but
do not even recognize most of the biggest current Indian animal
welfare problems. Cow slaughter and cow shelter mismanagement are
only some of the abuses involved in the fast-growing Indian leather
trade. Runaway expansion of the Indian poultry industry accounts for
most of the increase in Indian meat consumption. And whatever the
value of cows’ urine, still touted by devotees of Ayurvedic medicine,
India has become a world leader in pharmaceutical animal testing.
Two years after the 1997 Animal Welfare Board conference,
hoof-and-mouth disease spread from India with the illegal export of
livestock for slaughter in Saudi Arabia at the Feast of Atonement
after the haj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The outbreak
apparently spread throughout the world on soiled shoes and clothing
as pilgrims returned home, devastating the cattle industry in much
of western Europe, especially Britain.
International outbreaks of Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome
and the H5N1 avian influenza followed, the latter still raging.
Now the lesson is clear that if factory farming is to be
practiced successfully in Asia, maintaining bio-security is
essential. In practical terms, that requires abolishing a multitude
of abusive traditional customs, including live markets and shipping
live animals for slaughter, rather than frozen carcasses. Slaughter
must be faster and cleaner. Wild meat markets must be closed, since
bringing wildlife into proximity with livestock introduces exotic
diseases, like SARS, which can swiftly mutate. Cockfighting,
falconing, and the trade in capturing or raising birds for temple
release are all disease vectors associated with the spread of H5N1,
in particular, and also must be ended, if poultry bred for rapid
growth at expense of their immune systems are to be raised
successfully in close confinement.
Suddenly agribusiness and animal advocates have some common concerns.
Agribusiness is also beginning to realize (see page one) that
continuing intensive confinement husbandry requires becoming more
concerned about animal welfare, simply because stressed animals are
much more vulnerable to infection.
Factory farming, in India and elsewhere, can now be
addressed with a three-part strategy: welcoming agribusiness support
to eliminate other animal-abusive industries, encouraging reform of
agribusiness practices, and promoting vegetarianism and/or veganism
to younger consumers, who never felt deprived of meat and so can
more easily give it up.
India was never even close to fully vegetarian. “Tribals,”
lower caste Hindus, and the Muslim minority have always eaten meat.
Yet, until quite recently, not eating meat was a mark of education
and status. Giving up meat was a way to rise in social standing.
None of the Gandhian dogmatists attended Asia for Animals
2007. Perhaps they have now all passed on. The conference
undoubtedly ran more smoothly without them. They probably would have
readily agreed with younger activists, however, that restoring the
prestige of vegetarianism in Indian culture will be the pre-eminent
challenge to the Indian animal welfare cause in the coming years.