Chicken Sutra

KFC and the battle for India's soul

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When a New Delhi court ordered the closing of the city's first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet for health code violations last year, the American media viewed it as a cynical political ploy. After all, the action came just a year after the bubonic plague returned to India. If the country was going to worry about filthy restaurants, there were certainly people with dirtier hands than the Colonel.

But using a few flies and a high level of MSG to ban foreign fast food is not much different from using the spotted owl as a tool to save Oregon's old-growth forests: You take what the law will give you. And the fight against KFC has emerged as one of the principal battlegrounds in determining whether India's future will lie with the freewheeling global economy or the Gandhian tradition of low-level self-reliance.

As Vandana Shiva, the renowned Indian ecologist, points out in Food and Water Journal (Spring 1996), 'Doctors, health activists, farmers, environmentalists, and consumers are involved. Animal rights activists want to make sure we do not get a meat-based culture in this country. We are the leading vegetarian culture in the world. The movement in support of Indian culture and diversity is growing and multiplying. It is?.?.?. touching very deep cultural cords.'

Shiva's attack on the chain is in part an attack on factory farming in general--a mode of agriculture that's relatively new to India, where tiny holdings are still the rule, and where free-range chicken is a fact of life, not a yuppie trend. In Third World Resurgence (#67) she describes the 'concentration camp' conditions at these huge chicken plants, and the ways they can produce everything from foot troubles to 'caged layer fatigue.' She also warns of heavy use of antibiotics to prevent diseases in crowded conditions. Corporations like KFC are 'dumping a hazardous industry on the Indian consumer,' she contends. It may seem odd to see the ultraclean United States skewered as a purveyor of disease, but it's a charge that may grow more common as our consumer culture spreads to a growing global middle class.

At root, though, much of the dispute over multinationals like Pepsico-owned KFC is about whether government policy should serve that middle class or protect the far larger number of poor Indians. When the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant opened in the city of Bangalore in January a crowd of farmers broke its windows and burned its chicken in the streets. The protest was led by Professor M.D. Nanjundaswamy, the green-shawled farm organizer who instigated earlier campaigns against transnational Cargill and its seed salespeople. Nanjundaswamy, an organic farmer himself, heads a group that numbers 10 million farmers among its members, according to Third World Resurgence. He stresses that the Indian government's willingness to open up its culture has been just as damaging as its eagerness to court foreign investment. The new wave of satellite television, for instance, is changing even the way that young Indians dress, he says.



Though this movement is indigenous to south Asia, it has its champions closer to home as well. Writing in The Ram's Horn (Feb. 1996), Canadian farm activist Brewster Kneen concludes that 'in India, the farmers know what to do.' Though the Indian government arrested 102 activists after the Bangalore protest, accusing them of looting and attempted murder, he writes that he watched similar protests against Cargill in earlier years and was 'mightily impressed' by the 'integrity and knowledge' of the protesters. Indeed, the real difference between India and North America may be this: 70 percent of the population is still involved in agriculture, compared with less than 3 percent here. For the moment, there's still someone left to get angry in India.