When an inter-ministerial committee recently recommended provision of eggs in the mid-day meals programme, the Union government reportedly shelved the proposal and shifted the onus onto state governments.
However, attempts by state governments to introduce eggs with their own budgetary resources have run into rigid opposition from groups seeking to impose Brahminical ideas of sattvic diet on school-going children. While the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Madhya Pradesh backtracked on provision of eggs, the government in Karnataka has so far been able to hold its ground in the face of similar opposition and provide eggs as part of MDM during the last two academic years.
Given that eggs are one of the most nutritionally dense foods containing good quality, bioavailable and digestible protein as well as nutrients such as folate, zinc, Vitamins A, B12 etc., their nutritional value was never in doubt. Additionally, a majority of children studying in government-run and government-aided schools in Karnataka are from Dalit, Adivasi, OBC and religious minority communities and consume eggs at home. But on at least three earlier occasions (in 1991, 2007 and 2016) similar proposals for introduction of eggs in the MDM scheme were either withdrawn or never implemented because of opposition from religious groups, specifically those belonging to Lingayat and Brahmin denominations.
The most recent attempt by the BJP government to introduce eggs in the state has been carried out in spite of aggressive resistance from pontiffs and seers. Several possible factors swung the balance on this occasion; the strategic implementation by bureaucrats who were committed to providing eggs to school children; critical pushback by grass-roots Dalit-Bahujan organisations, civil society groups such as Ahara Namma Hakku, alternative voices from the Lingayat community itself (some of the most vociferous opposition was from religious leaders belonging to Lingayat community), and importantly, the voices of children who unequivocally demanded eggs.
The last point was exemplified by a viral video of a schoolgirl form Gangavathi in Koppal district of Karnataka in which she challenged the right of the religious leaders to deny eggs to the children when they have no problem accepting donations from them. “Give us back that money, we will buy eggs with that,” she says.
The pilot programme that was initiated in 2021 by the education department provided for either an egg or banana for 46 days between November 2021-March 2022 to children studying in Classes I-VIII in government-run and aided schools in 7 districts in the state – Yadgir, Kalburgi, Ballari, Koppala, Raichur, Bidar and Vijayapura.
The response of students to the introduction of eggs was overwhelming – a festival-like atmosphere was reported from schools and the school attendance was reported to have gone up on ‘egg days’. In an internal survey conducted in these seven districts by the department, over 80% of the students had reportedly indicated preference for eggs over bananas before rolling out the programme, and by the time the initiative was implemented, this percentage had gone up to over 91%.
An evaluation of the pilot initiatives (2021-22), commissioned by the Department on the impact of providing eggs under the midday meal scheme, found that in the intervention district (Yadgir), only 4.1% of the students didn’t consume eggs at all, while the rest of the students consumed eggs at least once, allaying fears about cultural inappropriateness of eggs. The proportion of school-attending students who consumed midday meals was higher in the intervention district (Yadgir) as compared to the control district (Gadag), indicating that inclusion of eggs encouraged greater consumption of midday meals among school-attending children. In terms of nutritional indicators as well, a greater percentage of boys and girls gained weight over the intervention period in the intervention district (86.5% and 86.3% respectively) as compared to the control district (78.2% and 81.3% respectively).
Because of the success of the intervention both in terms of improvement in nutritional indicators and the response from the students, demands for provision of eggs on all 5 days of the week (as opposed to just 46 days in the year) in all districts (not just seven districts), including Class 9 and 10 children began emerging across the state.
But, citing budgetary limitations, the only demand acceded to by the government was the extension of the programme to all districts.
The next challenge to the government’s decision to provide eggs in midday meals was at the level of the implementation.
Organisations like Akshaya Patra (linked to ISKCON) and Adamya Chetana (run by Tejaswini Ananthakumar, BJP vice-president and wife of the late BJP leader, Ananthakumar), refused to supply eggs to schools citing religious reasons.
In Bengaluru, Akshaya Patra and Adamya Chetana supply food to over 90% of the schools. Bowing down to their ideological and operational clout, the government summarily shifted the onus of supplying eggs to the School Development and Management Committees (SDMCs). The government of Karnataka thus came around a full circle by first handing over the midday meal scheme to centralised NGOs on the pretext that there is inadequate infrastructure or space for school based kitchens, only to revert back to the same for the provision of eggs.
The ideological resistance by these organisations to eggs effectively closes the door for any future interventions by the government to add meat, poultry, fish etc. to the plates of the children.
Even more concerning, several aided schools run by religious institutions refused to serve eggs at all.
Anecdotal information points to some schools demanding notes from parents that they didn’t want eggs to be given to their children in the midday meal and be given bananas/chikkis instead, even when they wanted eggs. Some schools offered vegetarian alternatives even to those who had opted for eggs, citing as reasons the rise in the market price of eggs. Owing to these possible factors, the percentage of children opting for eggs in schools across the state was just over 87% in the next academic year (2022-23).
|Year||No. of Districts||Percentage of total students availing themselves of midday meal opting for|
Source: Data provided by Department of School Education, Government of Karnataka.
But there were also instances of children who did not consume eggs at home opting to eat eggs under midday meal and there is mounting pressure on the government to increase the number of egg days and include students from Class 9 and 10 under the programme.
Continued ideological onslaught
Apart from these attempts to undermine the provision of eggs, the ideological onslaught against eggs continued unabated and unabashed. A position paper on ‘Health and Wellbeing’ prepared by a committee set up by the state government to guide the implementation of National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, launched a completely unscientific attack on inclusion of eggs in midday meals, using the absurd logic that serving eggs to some is discriminatory to children who have the same option but choose not to eat eggs
“Serving different foods to the same graders will lead to an imbalance in the nutrient distribution among children. For example, Serving other recipes or foods to the same graders, such as egg versus grams, or egg versus banana, leads to a nutritional imbalance among children. Additionally, children develop complexes that result in emotional disturbances among friends; treating all children equally and with no to Pankti Bhedha is authentic Indian philosophy or Dharma.”
Pankti Bhedha refers to the practice of serving food separately to devotees of different castes (especially Brahmins), followed most notably by the Krishna Mutt in Udupi, which has been criticised as casteist. But the Paper turned this anti-caste critique of the practice upside down to project diversity as itself being discriminatory!
As recent as January 2023, in a meeting of religious leaders convened by the education department on “developing a curriculum for value education”, some religious heads tried to link values practised by children with their food practices and demanded provision of sattvic food under midday meal. “Tamasic or rajasic foods are causing an increase in negative behaviour among children. Food plays a very important role. Kids should be given Sattvic food,” demanded a pontiff.
Tejaswini Ananthkumar used the occasion to reiterate her opposition to inclusion of eggs in the mid-day meals, strangely arguing that the midday meal should not be expected to address malnutrition. “Opposing eggs in the mid-day meals was my personal opinion, but now some religious leaders have also advised sattvic food. I agree that the nutrition level among children is low, but school is not the only place to answer all such issues.”
Nutrition of children of the state is being subjected to these persistent ideological attacks.
In spite of demonstrable evidence that inclusion of eggs is a necessary nutritional intervention, which is both culturally acceptable and also brings in much-required diversity to the mid-day meals, their distribution in the scheme is being obstructed by ideological barriers rooted in Brahmanical conceptions of purity and impurity of food practices. By sticking to the decision of providing eggs in midday meal, Karnataka has hesitantly joined its southern neighbours in challenging Brahminical cultural hegemony on defining food as pure and impure, one hopes that it stays that way.
Dr. Sylvia Karpagam is a public health doctor and researcher working on the right to health and nutrition. Dr. Siddharth Joshi is an independent researcher based in Bengaluru and is a member of Ahara Namma Hakku.