This week, the prime minister made headlines by serving midday meals supplied by Akshaya Patra at a school in Uttar Pradesh’s Vrindavan.
While he engaged in banter with the children about being late, one of the students wittily interjected that she didn’t mind as she had already eaten at home.
While the child’s innocent reply divulges the current government’s penchant for staged photo ops, it conceals the gritty ground realities across India. Even in a prosperous state like Punjab, the HRD ministry’s own survey reveals that 40% of children go to school on an empty stomach.
Uttar Pradesh, in fact, has the second highest rate of child malnourishment in the country and nearly half the children are stunted.
Eggs, a nutrition-dense superfoods, are recognised by nutritionists as ideal for growing and undernourished children.
Then why did the prime minister not serve these children eggs?
First, this reflects a nationwide trend in an era of strident food politics. Eleven of 15 BJP-ruled states, including Uttar Pradesh, refuse to provide eggs to children in schools. Influenced by saffronised vegetarian lobbies, four years ago, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan too had banned eggs in anganwadis despite high malnutrition.
In Jharkhand, one of the few tribal-dominated BJP-ruled states to serve eggs, last month in an unusual open-air picnic cabinet meeting, the chief minister, without any consultations, decided to reduce the number of eggs from three to two per week.
Secondly, Akshaya Patra, a religious organisation which supplies school meals across several cities, insists on a sattvic diet without even onions and garlic, let alone eggs. As a result, its tussle with the newly-elected non-BJP government in Karnataka has boiled over. Therefore, though Karnataka offers eggs in anganwadis, it has not yet been able to do so in schools.
On the contrary, after the recent assembly elections, the decision by the newly-minted Congress government in Chhattisgarh to add two eggs to the weekly menu was eagerly welcomed. But Madhya Pradesh, which also elected a new Congress government, has yet to follow suit and reverse Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s anti-egg diktat.
Delhi is another state where the AAP government, while having promised eggs in schools, puzzlingly, also plans to rope in Akshaya Patra to deliver midday meals despite their allergy to eggs.
This odd Indian misconception of eggs as non-vegetarian is thickly intertwined with sankritised caste prejudice. On the other hand, southern states, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala which pioneered midday meals and eggs in schools, have had a rich history of anti-caste social movements, and now boast amongst the lowest rates of child malnutrition in the country.
However, four geographically contiguous states in western India – Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab – with their distinctive cuisines, traditionally stand out as exceptions as they have higher levels of vegetarianism. More than half the population do not eat eggs or non-vegetarian food. Nevertheless, of them, Haryana and Rajasthan have introduced milk and Punjab kheer (milk pudding) in all schools as an alternative.
But Gujarat, which pioneered the Dairy Revolution, does not serve milk in all schools despite having one of the highest levels of child malnutrition.
Even the Centre has reportedly written to all the states to encourage them to serve milk and honey in schools to utilise excess stocks of milk powder, but the recent budget did not make any financial allocation for this alternative treat.
Further, some analysts argue that the states which are more vegetarian are less likely to serve eggs. While this is indeed true, the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 highlights that the vast majority of the Indian population are eggetarians or ovo-vegetarians. Several populous BJP-ruled states with Uttar Pradesh, in particular – which have both high levels of child malnutrition and more than half the population as eggtarians, still do not serve eggs. Cash-rich Maharashtra puzzlingly gives eggs under the APJ Abdul Kalam Amrut Yojana in 16 tribal districts, but not to children in all schools.
In the Northeast, however, there is an entirely different story. Though non-vegetarian foods are an integral part of local diets, the government of Arunachal Pradesh, for example, has complained that, “eggs are very costly and are not available in remote and far flung areas”. Enhanced central assistance and development of the poultry industry could offer a way forward.
But if Jharkhand’s example is anything to go by, the procurement of eggs also needs close monitoring. Till recently, the supplier was a Tamil Nadu-based tainted company – Christy Friedgram – which was recently been raided by the income tax department. Fortunately, after civil society remonstrations, the government has agreed to source eggs from local self-help groups instead soon.
With the 2019 elections around the corner, will governments stop playing with children’s food? Will political parties step up to the plate and display their commitment to children’s nutrition and add eggs in their manifestos?
Indian children are egging them on.
Swati Narayan is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences