Air India on Monday announced coach passengers on its domestic flights will only be offered vegetarian meals in an attempt to reduce wastage and cost and improve catering service.
“We have decided to serve vegetarian meals in our economy class seats on domestic flights,” Air India Chairman and Managing Director Ashwani Lohani told The Hindu. However, non-vegetarian meals would continue to be served in business and executive class on domestic as well as international flights.
The change which was made a week ago was strictly done to reduce waste and cut costs, according to GP Rao, a spokesperson for the government-owned airline. Further, Mahesh Y Reddy, secretary-general, Air Passengers Association of India, said the national carrier took the decision to cut wastage and cost, and to avoid mix-up of vegetarian with non-vegetarian meals.
“It also eliminates the possibility of mix-up: a non-veg meal getting served to a vegetarian passenger, as it had happened a few times in the past,” he said.
However, people have been raising concern over this move as sectarian especially since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party remain in power.
Many members of the Hindu majority are vegetarians, while the country’s Muslims and some other minorities in the country 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.”
However, there were some who came to Air India’s defence:
“Simple business sense suggests that any loss making entity should attempt to optimise and cut costs and more food options = more cost,” said Twitter user Krish Ashok.
In India, the diet is an important signifier of group identity. At the heart of the outrage lies the fact that India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party is trying to curb the freedom of the country’s minorities by utilising its governmental institutions to create disparity.
However, the government approved plans last month to privatise the airline, which has more than $8 billion in debt. Rao did not immediately disclose on Monday how much the airline would save after the change in meals, however, in an interview with The Hindu, an official for the airline put the figure at INR80 million a 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 5,000 years.”
This announcement from Monday is not the airline’s first attempt to step away from serving meat. In January 2016, the airline replaced sandwiches with hot vegetarian meals for economy passengers on flights between an hour of 90 minutes long. The Press Trust of India reported then that the airline presented the change as an ‘upgrade’.
This article originally appeared on The Hindu.