Switch to vegetarian food on Air India causes an uproar

Air India announced on Monday that coach passengers on its domestic flights would now be offered only vegetarian meals.
Air India announced on Monday that coach passengers on its domestic flights would now be offered only vegetarian meals.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) - Coming from some other debt-ridden airline, it might have been shrugged off as just another service cutback.

But not this time: When Air India announced Monday that coach passengers on its domestic flights would now be offered only vegetarian meals, the move provoked an uproar on social media.

G.P. Rao, a spokesman for the government-owned airline, said the change was made a week ago strictly to reduce waste and cut costs.

But what people eat can be a sectarian flash point in India, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took power.

Many members of the Hindu majority are vegetarians, while the country's Muslims and some other minorities eat meat.

So the airline's action was seen by many as discriminatory and part of a wave of religious nationalism sweeping the country.

"Only veg food on Air India," Madhu Menon, a Bangalore-based chef and food writer, wrote on Twitter. "Next, flight attendants to speak only Hindi. After that, stand for national anthem before flight take-off."

Others, though, came to Air India's defense, saying they could not understand all the public indignation.

"Simple business sense suggests that any loss making entity should attempt to optimise and cut costs & more food options = more cost," Krish Ashok, who describes himself as a techie in Chennai, wrote on Twitter.

He compared the move to other airlines serving sandwiches in place of a hot meal. In India, diet is an important signifier of group identity.

At the heart of the outrage over the airline's policy is a widespread sense that India's Hindu nationalist ruling party is trying to limit the freedom of the country's minorities.

The government of Uttar Pradesh, India's most-populous state, which is led by a new firebrand chief minister, has been cracking down on buffalo slaughterhouses this year, even though buffaloes are not considered sacred by Hindus the way cows are.

The lynching of a Muslim teenager on a train from Delhi last month, in which his assailants called him a "beef-eater," has further inflamed tensions. The government approved plans last month to privatise the airline, which has more than $8 billion in debt. Rao did not say Monday how much the change in meals would save the company.

But in an interview with The Hindu, a major newspaper, an official for the airline put the figure at 80 million rupees (S$1.7 million) per year. Critics derided that as a drop in the bucket.

Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, wrote on Twitter that the move would "restore Air India to full health in.... oh heck 5000 years."

The announcement Monday was not the airline's first step away from serving meat. In January 2016, the airline replaced sandwiches with hot vegetarian meals for economy passengers on flights between an hour and 90 minutes long, The Press Trust of India reported, a change that the airline presented as an upgrade.