Where law stands on eating, selling, displaying meat

By, New Delhi
Nov 17, 2021 12:07 AM IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled civic bodies in Vadodara, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Junagadh in Gujarat have last week ordered roadside food vendors and hawkers to cover non-vegetarian food, including eggs, saying an open display of the food could “hurt religious sentiments”

The Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled civic bodies in Vadodara, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Junagadh in Gujarat have last week ordered roadside food vendors and hawkers to cover non-vegetarian food, including eggs, saying an open display of the food could “hurt religious sentiments”. The roadside vendors have been asked to either stop selling non-vegetarian food items or keep them covered so that people cannot see them while passing on the roads or walking on footpaths.

The Supreme Court or the high court is yet to consider a challenge to a prohibitory order against open display of meat or non-vegetarian food items.(HT file) PREMIUM
The Supreme Court or the high court is yet to consider a challenge to a prohibitory order against open display of meat or non-vegetarian food items.(HT file)

Earlier, in August, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath announced that the sale of meat would be banned in certain parts of Mathura, adding to the ban orders already in force in parts of Haridwar, Rishikesh, Vrindavan, Barsana, Ayodhya, Chitrakoot, Deoband, Dewa Sharif, and Misrikh-Naimisharanya. In Haridwar, such orders exist since 1956.

Similarly, the Uttarakhand government recently inserted a new provision in the municipal laws to give itself the power to declare an area under a municipal corporation, council or Nagar panchayat as a “slaughter-free” zone to impose a total ban on slaughterhouses. Invoking this power, the state government issued a government order in March, shutting down slaughter houses in Haridwar district. Earlier, the prohibition was applicable only in areas abutting religious places.

The spate of recent orders by various municipal bodies and state governments over slaughter, sale and display of meat and non-vegetarian food warrant a serious debate because they are intimately linked with the rights of a large number of people, their livelihoods, and the right to eat the food of their choice. These are also issues touching upon the legality and constitutionality of the prohibitory executive orders, for they have an impact on the constitutional rights of people and can also relate to the fundamental duties as delineated under the Constitution of India.

Relevant constitutional provisions

Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution guarantees to all citizens the right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. Under this article, citizens have the right to choose employment, or take up any trade or occupation as per their volition and free will. But this right, like every other right, is not absolute. Under Article 19(6), the State can impose reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of trade, business, occupation or profession in the interest of the general public. Every ban order must pass the test of Article 19(6) if it imposes a restriction or prohibition on any persons against carrying a lawful trade or business.

In Chintaman Rao vs State of Madhya Pradesh (1950), the Supreme Court ruled that the determination by the legislature of what constitutes a reasonable restriction is not final or conclusive but that this is subject to supervision by this court. “In the matter of fundamental rights, the Supreme Court watches and guards the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and in exercising its functions it has the power to set aside an Act of the Legislature if it is in violation of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution,” declared this judgment, holding that every prohibitory order must stand the test of reasonableness and proportionality. Various subsequent judgments have affirmed this view and all acts of the State are measured against the yardsticks laid down in this verdict.

Article 48, which is part of the directive principles of state policy (a guidance of sorts for states in framing laws) of the Indian Constitution, lays down that the State shall organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves.

Article 51 of the Constitution underlines the fundamental duties to promote harmony among all sections of society and to preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture. Similarly, Article 51A(g) states that “it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures”.

Sale of meat and non-vegetarian food

In 2004, the Supreme Court examined an appeal by some hotel owners against a regulation introduced by the Rishikesh municipal board prohibiting sale of eggs in Rishikesh, Haridwar and Muni ki Reti. While the hotel owners said that the ban was a violation of their right to freely practice trade or business under Article 19(1)(g), the Allahabad high court had held it to be a form of reasonable restriction covered under Article 19(6). That led to the appeal.

The legality of the ban order was upheld by a division bench of the Supreme Court in Om Prakash & Others vs State of Uttar Pradesh. The court cited Article 51A to underscore that the fundamental duties enjoined on citizens should also guide the legislative and executive actions of elected or non-elected institutions and organisations of citizens, including municipal bodies. It noted that the ban was imposed in deference to religious and cultural demands of a large number of residents and pilgrims who visit Haridwar, Rishikesh and Muni ki Reti regularly and periodically on auspicious days.

“Maintenance of clean and congenial atmosphere in all religious places which are spread over all the three towns is in common interest of the residents, pilgrims and visitors... Geographical situation and peculiar culture of the three towns justify complete restriction on trade and public dealing in non-vegetarian food items including eggs within the municipal limits of the towns. The high court rightly upheld it to be a reasonable restriction,” the court further held. Commenting on the right to carry on trade or business, the top court said that trade in all kinds of food items, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, in adjoining towns and villages outside the municipal limits of three towns remained unrestricted and hence, there was no substantial harm caused to those engaged in such trade.

This judgment holds even today. But it is important to note that the Supreme Court confined its discussion in that case to issues of economic consideration and business interests; there was no challenge to the ban order by any individual in exercise of one’s right to eat food of his or her choice.

Eating non-vegetarian food

The Supreme Cout as well as various high courts have consistently frowned upon any attempt by the State to impose prohibition on the consumption of meat or any interference with the right to eat food of one’s choice.

The nine-judge bench that declared privacy to be a fundamental right in 2017 made it clear that decisional autonomy, with the choice of what one eats, is an integral part of the right to privacy.

“It is a fundamental and inalienable right and attaches to the person covering all information about that person and the choices that he/she makes. It protects an individual from the scrutiny of the State in their home, of their movements and over their reproductive choices, choice of partners, food habits, etc. Therefore, any action by the State that results in an infringement of the right to privacy is subject to judicial review,” the court held.

In Hinsa Virodhak Sangh vs Mirzapur Moti Kuresh Jamat (2008), the Supreme Court held that what one eats is one’s personal affair and it is a part of the right to privacy which is included in Article 21 of the Constitution. “Also, a large number of people are non-vegetarian and they cannot be compelled to become vegetarian for a long period,” the court said. However, the top court, in this judgment, also found nothing wrong with the closure of slaughterhouses in Ahmedabad for nine days during a Jain festival, saying the restriction was for a short period and in deference to the Jain community.

In September 2015, the Supreme Court declined to impose a ban on sale of meat in Mumbai during the Jain festival of Paryushana. It said that “a ban cannot be forced down somebody’s throat” and that the “spirit of tolerance” was paramount. The court asserted that every order of prohibition has to honour the spirit of tolerance and take into account the sensibilities of people.

Hearing a public interest litigation seeking the ban on the export of meat for consumption and leather, the top court in 2019 remarked that an order forcing everyone to become a vegetarian cannot be passed in the country. “Do you want everybody in this country to be a vegetarian? We cannot pass an order that everyone should become vegetarian,” it observed.

In July, the Uttarakhand high court questioned constitutionality of a ban on slaughterhouses in Haridwar district, observing that the matter of banning meat concerns the fundamental rights of citizens. It noted that India is a country where 70% of the population eats non-vegetarian food, and hence a meat ban is not a majority versus minority issue. “The issue is whether a citizen has the right to decide his own diet or will that be decided by the state,” it noted. The case is still pending there.

Display of meat and non-vegetarian food

The Supreme Court or the high court is yet to consider a challenge to a prohibitory order against open display of meat or non-vegetarian food items. Such ban orders are usually issued by the local administration and municipal authorities that give out licences to food stalls and kiosks.

These eateries are governed by the conditions of their licence and to pass the legal test, municipal bodies must incorporate this as a condition that they cannot display meat or non-veg food openly. An oral instruction would not pass the muster of legality when the licensees are bound by the terms of written regulations.

Further, a question of discrimination would also arise when non-vegetarian food stalls are acted against for not properly covering their food items while those selling vegetarian food items have a free run even though both can be prosecuted for not adhering to hygiene standards mandated of food businesses.

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