Alokparna Sengupta is the Deputy Director of Humane Society International/India (HSI/India) and N.G. Jayasimha is the Managing Director of HSI/India. They spoke with ACE Managing Editor Melissa Guzikowski on September 20, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
To start off, please give a brief summary of your work at HSI/India, focusing specifically on any farmed animal work that you’ve done.
A.S.: We are one of the very few organizations in the country that campaign on behalf of farmed animals. While we do have a number of campaigns across the areas of wild animals, companion animals, and animal testing, our biggest campaigns are in the area of farmed animals. We have been successful in putting a stop to forced moulting, a practice in which egg-laying hens are made to starve for more than two weeks. As a result of our efforts, that practice was banned in 2012. We have also campaigned extensively against the use of battery cages. In 2013, we persuaded the Animal Welfare Board of India, as well as governments in 26 states across the country, to declare battery cages illegal. As of right now, however, this has not been fully implemented. With the help of various partner organizations, we are making legal interventions in court to get a full prohibition on battery cages. We have also worked with various environmental and legal agencies to draft legislation on housing, transport, and slaughter conditions of broiler chickens. Our newest project, which we are just about to launch, is in the area of aquaculture. Currently, aquaculture is mostly unregulated, and to the best of our knowledge, there are no animal welfare organizations in India who are working on aquaculture. We plan to begin primarily with research before moving on to legal or legislative interventions.
N.G.J.: Our work is centred primarily around intensive confinement of farmed animals, and our main focus within that area is egg-laying hens. We started out trying to use corporate outreach as a means of eliminating intensive confinement, but we realized that the number of animals who are being consumed through large, corporate retail chains was actually very small. There are no huge grocery chains, for example, in India. Most meat, egg, and dairy products are sold in small shops around the country. We realized that the best approach would be to outlaw the practice of intensive confinement. However, it is very hard to bring about new laws and regulations in this area. There is overall a policy paralysis when it comes to progressive legislation which is not specific to farmed animals. To add to that, there is an issue of regulatory capture by the industry. It is always difficult to not only persuade government bodies of new legislation, but also to force the practical implementation of legislation once it is passed.
Our strategy was to interpret a 1960 law that was part of general anti-cruelty legislation. The law included very general anti-confinement language that could conceivably be applied to egg-laying hens. In our litigation, we made the case with the Ministry of Finance and the National Rural Development Agricultural Bank parties in order to ensure that financing for industries that use intensive confinement will stop. By doing so, we wanted to ensure that intensive confinement would not be economical by halting access to funding. We think that funding control, be it through debt or investment, may be the only tool for implementation in India.
We have also done some defensive legal work in intensive confinement. For example, India does not have any gestation crates at all, and pigs are grown almost entirely in small pastures or backyard settings. For a while, there was one gestation crate facility in the whole country, which was in Ludhiana, the largest city in the state of Punjab. It was operated through an Indo-Canadian partnership. When the Canadian market abandoned gestation crates, this particular Canadian company used their secondhand gestation crates to set up a facility here in India, where the agricultural industry was much less regulated. Working with the Animal Welfare Board of India, we were able to shut down this facility. We had a similar experience when we partnered with some other local organizations to shut down a mega dairy facility in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
A.S.: This facility was proposed by one of New Zealand’s biggest dairy farms. In this case, they sent 60,000 semen samples and 60,000 Jersey cows to India, and they intended to use land which was already severely affected by drought. They were also misleading the Indian government by assuring them that there would be food security, when in reality it would be completely for export of dairy products outside of India. Although the opening of the facility would have been an employment opportunity, it would have taken away the independent production and cooperative housing of smaller dairy farmers. We worked with the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), and ultimately the facility was rejected not only on animal welfare grounds, but also on environmental grounds.
N.G.J.: In instances like these, where industrialization hasn’t occurred, we find that the best approach is to take a defensive stance and stop it before it can progress as it has in the cases of aquaculture, broiler chickens, and egg-laying hens.
Overall, our greatest successes have been in legislative reforms, both offensive and defensive. We have been especially productive in working with banks on our legal cases to ensure that there is no financing for intensive confinement. We also do quite a bit of work in the area of meat consumption reduction. We currently have 50 cheap meat alternatives, which will help to feed the ever-growing middle class in India. An area that is more of a challenge for us, as I mentioned, is corporate outreach, due to the structure of the retail system here and the absence of big, corporate chains.
Can you give any insight as to why HSI decided to expand to India? What factors were important to them in making that decision?
A.S.: I think it is important to recognize that India is the third-largest producer of eggs in the world and the national consumption of chicken is expected to double by the year 2025. Furthermore, consumption of these products will only continue to increase as the average income rises and the middle class expands. India’s GDP has been increasing and our economy has generally been doing well over the last seven years since the inception of HSI/India. Given this environment, animal agriculture and related industries have moved into the country, with the Indian government giving out subsidies. Also, in times of prosperity like this, meat and other animal products can serve as a signal of wealth for individuals and families. It is also worth noting that in the 1990s, our chicken and egg industry adopted the intensive confinement model, and it has been important to establish ourselves in India to work against this trend before it gets worse to the degree that it has in other countries. As Jayasimha discussed earlier, we have had some successes in blocking this kind of industrial expansion and establishment.
NGJ: I would like to believe that the decision was the result of strategic planning on the part of the organization, but I think it is more likely that they just went by a gut instinct that India was an emerging market. They may also have thought that there should be an HSI group in India because other animal advocacy groups had a presence in India.
We’ve talked a bit about how animal product consumption is rising due to the expanding middle class and, most likely, Western influence. Do you think that Indian consumers are receptive to dietary change advocacy at this point in time?
N.G.J.: The number of vegetarians in India has actually remained roughly the same over time. In fact, national data shows that the number of vegetarians in India has increased since 2004. Currently, one in four Indian citizens is a vegetarian. There has been, however, an increase in per capita animal product consumption over time. Chicken consumption is at approximately 3.6 kilograms per capita in 2017, which is almost five times the per capita consumption in 1997, even with a rapid increase in population. This per capita increase is more likely the result of long standing meat-eaters simply eating greater quantities of meat over time, rather than long standing vegetarians starting to eat meat. We can’t say that Indians are collectively abandoning vegetarianism or uniformly eating more meat as they become wealthier. Rather, those who already ate at least some meat are eating more meat than ever before. We also see a huge decrease in overall red meat consumption, from 1994 to 2010 and beyond. In contrast, there has been an upward trajectory for seafood consumption in recent years.
How do you think young Indian professionals view the prospect of pursuing a career at an NGO? Is it a significant challenge to find talented people to join the animal advocacy movement in India?
N.G.J.: When I started out in animal activism when I was seventeen or eighteen, I thought that if you had enough money, you could easily bring tons of people on to work for animal welfare. But what I’ve found since we started working with the Open Philanthropy Project is that even with a great deal of funding, it is still a struggle to find people to hire.
A.S.: I think there are people who want to work in the movement, but it has been difficult to hire people in substantial roles. Many people envision any potential involvement in the movement as voluntary work that they would do on the side because it is a passion of theirs. But working for the movement is not necessarily seen as a professional career path. A lot of people don’t know that animal welfare and animal protection constitute a viable sector of employment. It is possible that prospective workers anticipate, in some cases rightly so, that animal advocacy organizations won’t have measurable goals and objectives, proper feedback, appraisals, bonuses, and so on. People also tend to be much more invested in the treatment of domesticated animals than they are in the welfare of farm animals, and the project of advocating for farm animals can bring up the topic of vegetarianism, which gets into religious issues for some people. So, ultimately, our hiring pool remains very small.
Can you tell me more about how religion impacts animal advocacy in India?
A.S.: A prominent religious conflict in India that relates to animal consumption is the conflict between Hindus and Muslims. I don’t know the details of how either group approves or disapproves of consumption across their various castes, but there is definitely a section of society that would not react positively to messages in favour of reducing meat consumption. For this reason, our own messaging has mostly been about reduction rather than strict elimination of meat from diet, in order to minimize this kind of negative response. With the development of plant-based and clean meat in India, we are starting to give out more messages of complete elimination of meat, but we still have to be careful with that. Because of religious arguments for animal protection, there is always the risk that our message will be confused with that of right-wing cow protectionists and that it will be received negatively because of that association. As I oversee our social media accounts, I often find these kinds of responses.
N.G.J.: Even though many people associate India with principles of nonviolence and compassion, which might seem conducive to the animal rights movement, we are actually stuck in a difficult place when it comes to religion. It is important to recognize the great disparity between the ideals and principles regarding the treatment of living things and the reality of how badly animals are treated across the country. There are a few challenges relating to religion that we face in changing the treatment of animals.
First, it is very difficult to change people’s attitude and behaviour toward animals when they believe they are already treating animals with nonviolence. It is often the case that people do not recognize violence toward animals because of a strong emphasis on quantity over quality of life in Indian religion.
Second, the belief in karma—that is, the belief that when we die, we are reincarnated and pay for the sins of our previous lives—poses a challenge. Many people believe that animals who suffer now are paying for the sins of their past lives. Consequently, in many religious animal shelters or gaushalas,1 there is no veterinary care whatsoever. Animals are simply kept there and given enough food and water to survive.
Third, something that Alokparna touched on, there is often an equivocation between animal welfare activism and the religious cow protectionism practiced by fundamentalist Hindus. Cow protectionists will prevent cow slaughter at all costs, while disregarding the slaughter of other animals, even animals that are extremely similar to cows, like water buffaloes. For cows, it does not matter whether their rights are being advocated for by animal welfare activists or religious groups, but we have found that the work of religious groups can ultimately just transfer suffering from cows onto other animal groups. For example, we have seen that when a fundamentalist Hindu group comes into power in a given state, consumption of beef might decline, but consumption of poultry will increase to compensate. It is also important to note, while on the subject of cow protectionism, that cows do not necessarily live comfortable or healthy lives simply because they have been protected from slaughter. Many cows are left in the streets to live on a diet of plastic and other garbage. Finally, another issue lies in the fact that cow protectionists focus almost entirely on meat producers and consumers, but the real problem is found in milk and other dairy. These products are much cheaper and drive a significant amount of cow farming.
In my animal welfare work in other countries, I have found that animal advocacy is much simpler in the absence of religious dogma. In Vietnam, for example, I find the public to be a lot more open to animal welfare discussions because these discussions can be presented as a simple effort to reduce suffering. In India, we have encountered problems because karma has become a justification for cruelty to animals, quantity of life is prioritized over quality of life, and one species is elevated over all others as sacred and worthy of protection. Moreover, people on the right wing harm animals of many species through the practice of cow protectionism, while people on the left wing refuse to work in animal welfare because they don’t want to be seen as religious fundamentalists. So, in many ways, we find ourselves in a no-win situation.
Are there any other challenges to effective animal advocacy in India that you would like to mention?
A.S.: We have approximately 20–30 thousand animal protection NGOs in India, and more than 90% of these are for street dog protection. There are only a handful of organizations—Animal Equality, PETA, Mercy For Animals, People for Animals, and maybe a few others—working on farm animal protection. Most other animal protection organizations don’t take ownership of farm animal welfare as a significant issue. This presents a big challenge because it prevents farm animal protection from being a large enough issue for the public to become invested in it. Similarly, while more and more people are becoming vegan, there is a lack of investment in vegan legislation or reform on the organizational level.
N.G.J.: People here are presented with so much animal suffering every day as they walk down the street, and I think this results in a huge amount of desensitization. Everyone knows the famous Paul McCartney line, that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian. In India, though, slaughterhouses have no walls. It is impossible to walk through any public market without seeing birds or fish being sacrificed, and most people who eat meat have probably seen animals slaughtered. However, all of this seems to have the opposite effect to what McCartney predicted, as people become overly accustomed to the sight of animal suffering. The possibility of shocking people into action through exposure to animal suffering is unavailable to us—people see animal suffering every day. We understand that in a country of 1.25 billion people, where animal suffering is so normalized, we will never be able to build a grassroots movement or reach a significant number of people through outreach efforts.
Consequently, we have tried to work from the top down, through legal action and financial lobbying with the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), corporate finance, mutual funds, pension funds, and so on, to ensure that people are not investing in agribusiness that uses intensive confinement. We also try to put a lot of effort into getting cheap, tasty, and convenient meat alternatives out into the market, as well as making these alternatives aspirational for the growing middle class. Finally, we also try to force companies that produce animal products to internalize costs related to pollution and worker welfare in order to drive up the cost of their products. We know that if we can make animal products more expensive, this will ultimately result in lower demand for them and a higher demand for alternatives. India is a calorie-deficit country, so consumers will likely always opt for the cheapest protein available.
A.S.: On the topic of meat alternatives, I think it is important to consider that vegetarian food is not considered a “sexy” or exciting option. People are quick to associate even the newest and most innovative plant-based alternatives with traditional vegetarian food like soy nuggets or granules, and the result is that they don’t even want to try them. So, making enticing and tasty alternatives is really important. I have tasted plant-based meat produced in the United States, and it is very different from plant-based meat cooked here. One Indian manufacturer called Good Dot has been able to produce something that is quite good, but we need more varieties of really appetizing and exciting plant-based meat to change the current perception of plant-based food as boring. The prospect of clean meat has also been really taken up by non-vegetarians, so that would be another area of great opportunity. We are working with one of the more well-known research institutes in Hyderabad, where we are located, to see if we can produce a prototype.
N.G.J.: When it comes to plant-based dairy, I’m not convinced that is going to pick up in India at any point soon. There are a number of companies working on plant-based dairy, and we have tried to support them, but a key difference between meat and dairy lies in the fact that the consumption of dairy has religious functions. The drinking of milk as part of communion ceremonies, and that cannot be replaced by a vegan dairy alternative. Our friend Yamini Narayanan, professor at Deakin University, recently published a paper on the acceptability and public perception of plant-based milk alternatives. People think of milk as the nectar of life, which everyone needs to consume. Having said that, it might be different if we were able to introduce a functionality issue. If we could make plant-based milk convenient in terms of manufacturing, transporting, and selling, then there might be some room to get into the market, but I still remain quite skeptical.