Plant Power! Ambika Hiranandani on More Plant-based Options

Ambika Hiranandani

Lawyer, animal-welfare activist and Instagram micro-influencer has always known what she wanted to be when she “grew up.” Not merely in terms of her professional ambitions, but also in terms of what she’s wanted to embody as a person. For instance, she corrects me when I refer to her as a vegan. “I prefer to use the term plant-based,” she says. “They’re both the same thing, but I’m plant-based with everything.” Hiranandani has been a vegan for over 10 years, draws inspiration from Eastern spiritual philosophy, and takes great pains to ensure that her possessions, cosmetics, clothes, and any other part of her life are plant-based as far as possible. On her Instagram page, she shares important information on animal welfare in India along with tips on adopting a plant-based lifestyle.

When she was a teenager, Hiranandani and her parents were at a restaurant from which they could observe a “Victoria,” a horse-drawn carriage and a major tourist draw in South Mumbai. There were six passengers being hauled along by an emaciated mare who persisted until she collapsed. The horse handler promptly got off and began to hit her with a slipper until she was back on her feet again.

Hiranandani went on to get a law degree and, in 2011 she and a few others filed a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking the prohibition of the carriages and a rehabilitation scheme for the owners. Now, the horse-drawn Victorias have all but vanished. Since then, she, along with various activists and organizations she’s been involved with, are working to abolish several cruel practices such as bull-fighting, battery cages in the poultry industry, and more. She is currently working with the Good Food Institute on Strategic Partnerships while also pursuing advocacy work in animal welfare and rights.

What got you into your current path? Why law?

I found my jam very early on. I’m not a competitive person, I’m collaborative by nature. [Right from school] I was very clear that I want to create change and create a better world. I didn’t really take to sports, I preferred volunteering, and realized early on that I’m happiest when I’m making the world a little bit more compassionate.

Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize when I was 14. She’s a lawyer who used the law to fight for women’s rights in Iran. I watched Erin Brockovich and I loved how, through just one case, she helped so many people’s voices get heard. I realized that as a lawyer, one can bring an issue of public importance before a judge.

I was like, this is perfect. I’m fearless, I’m not scared of anything or anybody and I’m very happy to speak to people who are vulnerable. I noticed that for women’s rights cases, 50 lawyers would come. For children’s rights cases, 100 lawyers would come. I’m just giving examples. But almost nobody was there for the environment and animals. So that’s when I started working on environmental and animal rights cases.

I’m not a “koo-chi-koo, my dog is my baccha” kind of animal lover. My dog is my friend and we love each other. But I’m in this work because I found the extent of cruelty and bullying to be so, so, bad. I’ve always had this philosophy that I want to work for those who are the most vulnerable.

Whom do you count among your mentors? Who’s your squad?

One is obviously Mrs. (Maneka) Gandhi, who’s a huge inspiration to everyone in animal welfare. There’s not one email that she won’t respond to and guide you on. Poonam Mahajan of the Maharashtra State Animal Welfare Board is my mentor who guides me on how to navigate the intricacies of government procedures and really takes great pains to explain things to me. There’s Gauri Maulekhi who’s an activist who’s done so many PILs that she’s pretty much a lawyer. And so many others.

You’ve been plant-based for over 10 years. What’s your view on the idea that vegan protein and plant-based meat options are inaccessible to most, especially in India?

Well, it depends on the way you talk about it. In my experience, plant-based options are always cheaper at restaurants. If we’re talking about plant-based milk: you can make your own at home with a couple of almonds and it’s non-GMO and no animals have been injected with oxytocin or any of those horrible things. As for plant-based meat, it isn’t a necessity; it can be a treat once in two weeks or so. Otherwise simple Indian food, your lentils and legumes – moong, rajma, chickpeas – are good enough. It’s what I eat. It’s the best for your health, your skin. It’s the best for the environment. In my experience, the more I return to nature, the better I look, the better I feel, and at least in this respect, my karma is clean. I’m not harming any living being and I’m living my best life. The motivations are so great.

Working in animal rescue and welfare, being exposed to soul-crushing cruelty every single day, do you ever find yourself getting pessimistic? How do you cope?

The thing with animal or environmental activism is that half the time people don’t even feel that animals have the right to live. But you know what, it’s getting better. The world is becoming more compassionate, and the science is on our side.

Have you ever had moments where you wonder if you should do something else?

To be honest, the only time I’ve thought about doing something else is when I faced financial issues. Environmental and animal welfare cases don’t pay and when I started it was very difficult to take care of myself. I had to do side gigs and rely on my family. Now the sector has grown a lot in India and NGOs pay those who work with them – maybe not as much as the corporate sector but decent salaries, nonetheless. I’m one of those, like, exceedingly positive, glass-is-always-half-full type of people. I believe in collaborative change-making and I’m passionate about my work. It’s my source of happiness.