Class Discrimination, Policing Food Habits: Why Meat Bans Are Legally Dubious

As meat bans of the type contemplated by the SDMC Mayor become commonplace, the courts are likely to frown on them.

7 min read
Class Discrimination, Policing Food Habits: Why Meat Bans Are Legally Dubious
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While there have been many attempts in the past in different parts of the country to ban the sale of meat (not just beef), the national capital had, thus far, been able to avoid such a controversy.

On 4 April, however, that changed when a statement – not even an official order – was issued by the Mayor of South Delhi Municipal Corporation, which said that meat shops would be banned during the nine-day Navratri festival.

Such a 'ban' was not only illegal because it failed to follow any procedure established by law, but it also violated the basic fundamental rights of various vendors, shopkeepers, and citizens.

A particularly discordant note about this attempted ban and similar calls to shut down meat shops in situations like this is how it creates a wall of discrimination between the rich and poor working class, both in terms of the ability to eat the food of one's choice and to earn a livelihood.

With such controversies only likely to increase, it is worth examining some of the legal questions that bans like these would entail.


Was the Mayor's 'Ban' Properly Issued?

It is interesting to note that in the statement issued by the SDMC Mayor, Mukesh Suryaan, he did not refer to any statutory authority.

This is because, under the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957, only the Commissioner has the power to shut down meat shops/slaughterhouses after issuing a public notice.

The 4 April statement was only issued on the letterhead of the Mayor and there was no government order as such that banned the sale of meat across New Delhi.

Chapter 20 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957 talks about the maintenance and regulation of markets and slaughterhouses. Sections 405 and 407 discuss the power of the Commissioner to shut down spaces where meat is being sold – in slaughterhouses and private spaces.

Clause 3 of Section 408 says that when the Commissioner refuses to grant any licence to such shops/slaughterhouses, he shall record a brief statement of the reasons for such refusal.

The Commissioner may, with the previous approval of the Standing Committee and for reasons to be recorded, suspend a licence in respect of a private market for a period he thinks fit, or cancel the licence.

While Suryaan told the media that an order would, in fact, be issued to back up his statement, no such order was passed by the Commissioner.

The 'ban' nonetheless created fear and confusion for meat sellers in south Delhi and caused them to face losses even though it was never validly issued, something which could easily happen in the future as well.


Working Class vs the Privileged

The most concerning aspect of the ban mooted by the SDMC was the discrimination, which is primarily based on class within a class.

A meat ban like this (as seen even with the reversed ban on meat shops in Ghaziabad) would be applicable to those shops which are, for the most part, managed by poor vendors, shopkeepers, and butchers.

It would not have affected the sale of meat being sold inside supermarkets, specialised stores selling frozen non-vegetarian items (sourced and packaged outside the region), or online delivery options like Licious.

"There are 20 shops in this (CR Park) market and at least 80 families that are dependent on it. There are three labourers who work in my shop whose families depend on them; my own family depends on me. The shops are rented, we will have to face a lot of losses if the shops are shut. We faced severe losses when the shops were shut during COVID-19 too. We keep surplus stock for the next day, but if they decide to shut shops overnight, we will face severe losses because of that stock."
Taby Ray, vendor at Chittranjan Park Market, tells The Quint

Such discrimination is not only arbitrary but also hits at the core values of our Constitution, which rests on the trinity of equality, liberty, and fraternity.

For instance, if this kind of ban is challenged in a constitutional court, the State would have to prove why they were discriminating between different classes of meat sellers and consumers (basically the poor and the rich) and how this treatment could justify the test of "intelligible differentia" required to ensure they didn't violate Article 14.

In terms of class discrimination, it is also pertinent to note that many street vendors selling meat dishes would also be affected by such a blanket meat ban.

Section 12 of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, clearly reads that every street vendor shall have the right to carry on the business of street vending activities – this could create another legal ground for challenging such a ban.


What About the Right to Livelihood?

Meat bans of the nature contemplated by the SDMC Mayor (and officials in East Delhi and Ghaziabad, and even in Bengaluru now) would obviously affect the ability of meat sellers to carry on their trade or occupation and to earn a livelihood.

The freedom to "practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business" is a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.

While there is no right to livelihood in so many words in the Constitution, the Supreme Court in the famous Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation case had held that the right to livelihood was a "part and parcel of the Right to Life" guaranteed under Article 21.

The fundamental rights are no doubt subject to reasonable restrictions, but this means they have to be in the form of valid 'law' – unlike the actions of the SDMC Mayor.

Even if a meat ban is imposed by the procedure established by law, there are questions that still need to be asked about what the need for the restriction is, and whether this is a proportionate measure.

While there have been decisions of the Supreme Court in the past which have allowed meat bans, whether the ban in Rishikesh or the limited ban in Ahmedabad during the Paryushan festival, these decisions have noted that the restrictions had been customarily imposed over an extended period of time already, and there was a unique cultural context behind them.

This background was also relevant to the Bombay High Court's decision in 2019 when it held that a ban on selling meat during Paryushan was not unconstitutional, following the apex court decision regarding Ahmedabad –in both places, the ban had been in place since 1993/1994.

Such justifications would not apply to meat bans as a matter of course in places like South Delhi or Ghaziabad, or indeed, most parts of the country.

It should perhaps also be noted that the government is supposed to ensure an environment where all classes of people can practise their right to trade (Article 19(1)(g)) and to ensure that citizens are provided with adequate means of livelihood (Article 39, a Directive Principle of State Police, so not enforceable of course).

By imposing such bans every now and then under the garb of religious sentiments, the authorities would not only be depriving the daily wage earner of their rights, but are also not paying heed to the sufferings they have to go through.


'State Cannot Decide What One Should Eat': What the High Courts Have Said

In Shaikh Zahid Mukhtar vs the State Of Maharashtra, the Bombay High Court struck down certain amendments to the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act 1976 relating to the state's beef ban, which sought to make it illegal even to possess beef obtained from outside the state.

While coming down heavily on the authorities, the court remarked that the State cannot make an intrusion into his home and prevent a citizen from possessing and eating food of his choice.

"Preventing a citizen from possessing flesh of cow, bull or bullock slaughtered outside the State amounts to prohibiting a citizen from possessing and consuming food of his choice."
Bombay HC in Shaikh Zahid Mukhtar case in 2016

The court significantly said that the "State cannot control what a citizen does" in his house which is his own castle, provided he is not doing something which is contrary to law.

In Saeed Ahmed vs State of Uttar Pradesh, the Allahabad High Court in 2017 had ruled that food, food habits, and vending thereof are undisputedly connected with the right to life and livelihood guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The court also observed that food habits in Uttar Pradesh have flourished and are an essential part of life as an element of the secular culture that has come to exist and is common amongst all sections of the society.

In December 2021, the Gujarat High Court had strong remarks for the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, which was prohibiting selling of non-vegetarian food on the streets of the city, with Justice Biren Vaishnav saying:

"You don't like non-veg food, it is your lookout. How can you decide what people should eat outside? How can you stop people from eating what they want?”

The petition, filed by street vendors alleging violation of the Street Vendors Act 2014, was eventually dismissed after the civic body assured the court that there was no order to prohibit selling of non-vegetarian food, and that there would be no discrimination. The judge had remarked:

"People are selling omelettes, eggs, and overnight you decide to pick them and throw them away because the party in power decides so? Just because the party in power says that it wants people to stop eating eggs, you will pick the food stall owners and throw them away? How dare you discriminate between people? Don't undertake this drive to satisfy the ego of some people."

(Ratna Singh is an advocate and legal journalist in Uttar Pradesh who tweets at @whattalawyer. Areeb Uddin Ahmed is an advocate practising at the Allahabad High Court who tweets at @Areebuddin14. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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