“Roz khao ande” says the National Egg Coordination Committee, but in Chhattisgarh, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led opposition says, “Na khaunga, na khane dunga“.
In debates on nourishment for school-going children and the government-run mid-day meal programme, eggs have become the bone of contention between the ruling Congress and the BJP.
A few days ago, some Kabirpanthis raised the issue of inclusion of eggs in mid-day meals offered to school students by the state government. The 15th century poet has a sizeable following in the state. Some of his followers, who call themselves Kabirpanthis, presented a memorandum to the Kawardha district collector, stating that they would block of highways in protest if eggs were not removed from mid-day meals of school children in the state.
Eggs had been removed from these meals by the previous Raman Singh government in 2015, even after the National Institute of Nutrition had recommended that they be made compulsory for mid-day meals.
Bhupesh Baghel re-introduced eggs in January. His office informed The Wire that almost 40% tribal children and more than 35% of non-tribal children in the state, who are under the age of 14, are malnourished and eggs could improve their diet.
The Raman Singh government had tried to replace eggs with soya and banana – a move which apparently did not work very well in the battle against malnutrition. The Baghel government thus wants to serve eggs at least thrice a week. The government also holds the view that more students come on days when eggs are served as opposed to the days when soya badi is served.
The BJP immediately extended support to the Kabirpanthis and now the anti-egg resistance has spread to other districts as well. Last week, Baghel clarified that eggs would indeed be served to not compromise the health and wellbeing of future generations.
MLAs of the State today met Chief Minister hon. Shri @bhupeshbaghel ji and gave him a letter and praised the plan to provide egg in midday meal.
The MLA urged the Honorable Chief Minister to make the eggs available in the mid-day meals three times a week. pic.twitter.com/AXovEOdb4V
— Chhattisgarh Pradesh Congress Sevadal (@SevadalCG) July 12, 2019
There are a great many number of Jain, Marwari and other Hindu sects with vocal leaders in the state who profess vegetarianism yet, intriguingly, this particular issue has been raised by the Kabirpanthis.
No one really knows if Kabir had, in his preachings and poetry, ever specifically said anything against eggs. Yet, Kabir, who had specifically campaigned against idol worship and temple mongering, now has several temples to his name.
The Kabirpanthis’ reasoning, again, was revealed on Monday when the state assembly’s monsoon session began. The BJP, supported by Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh, raised the issue repeatedly and asserted that the government is “forcefully making every child a non vegetarian”. Notably, speaker Charandas Mahant is a Kabirpanthi and a political rival of Baghel’s.
Local political skirmishes apart, it is important to understand why eggs are recommended by nutritionists and paediatricians alike. Irrespective of religion, caste, class or social status, eggs can ensure a complete and balanced diet. Policy makers also agree that eggs are essential for health, wellbeing and productivity, often with inter-generational impact. Inclusion of eggs, flesh foods and fish enhances the quality of diet as they are a rich source of proteins.
Consumption of at least three eggs a week is recommended in view of several nutritional advantages. Eggs are a rich source of all nutrients except Vitamin C and egg protein has high biological value and digestibility.
The Indian Food Composition tables of the National Institute of Nutrition, on which the recommendations for mid-day meals are based, reveals that a whole egg has comparatively higher protein bioavailability of 94%, which is much higher than vegetable proteins like chana (76%) and soya badi (54%).
Kabirpanthis in Chhattisgarh, however, doggedly maintain that soya can easily replace eggs.
There might be another aspect to consider, though. Who benefits from the change in policy? There is an entire mid-day meal mafia at play in every state and even ISKCON has found itself severely sanctioned by the CAG for irregularities in providing mid-day meals in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
So there has to be an “egg lobby” as there must be a “soya lobby”. But this may be a matter for another story. For now, it will be interesting to see the egg versus soya battle play out in Chhattisgarh at the cost of children’s nutrition.
Neeraj Mishra is a senior journalist who has covered elections in central India for more than two decades.