Chicken Sutra

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
(#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.

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