How Politics And Religious Dogma Deny Eggs To India's Severely Malnourished Children

India has the world's largest number of undernourished people and while in the country's mainstream discourse you will hear talk of aspirations of becoming a major world power and so on, the number of undernourished is actually on the rise.

India runs mid-day meal programmes and other nutritional initiatives meant for children because childhood malnutrition can irreversibly stunt the development of an individual. This is why under various schemes, Indian states provide eggs, milk, fruit and other nutritional food to school children.

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has turned down a proposal by the state's women and child development department that eggs, a rich and relatively inexpensive source of protein, be included as part of a nutritional scheme for pre-school children in the state. Undernourishment among children in Madhya Pradesh is very high. A 2010 study by the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, found that 51.7% of children under 6 in MP were underweight. A 2012 report by the state planning commission contained this chilling sentence: "...the number of severely acute malnourished (SAM) children is so high, that it is impossible to treat all of them".

Even against such a backdrop, the CM has not cited a good reason for why eggs were anathema to the state.

But a perusal of the trends makes one thing clear--what is common to all the states that consistently provide eggs to undernourished children is a non-BJP government. In other words, the party's Hindutva ideology and related vegetarian dogma followed by upper-caste Hindus might be coming in the way of providing a cheap source of nutrition to deprived and malnourished children, whose cultural preferences would wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity to consume an egg.

At least six states in India consistently provide children eggs at least once every week under the mid-day meal scheme or Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme. India's youngest state — Telangana — gives children between three to six years of age one egg every day of the week under ICDS. Children in Tamil Nadu get three to five eggs a week, depending on which scheme they fall under.

Read: Shivraj Chouhan Won't Allow Anganwadi Children To Eat Eggs In Madhya Pradesh

Data collected by the Right To Food Campaign reveals that the best states which consistently, across nutrition schemes, provide children eggs are Bihar, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. Though children in West Bengal receive half an egg six times a week under the ICDS scheme, the mid-day meals do not have eggs. Similarly, even though Karnataka provides three eggs to children under ICDS, the state gives five glasses of milk but no eggs under the mid-day meal scheme.

eggs map

The Right To Food Campaign's Swati Narayan collected data from on-ground researchers, as well as from media reports. Her maps detailing how the nutrition schemes work reveal that eggs are usually distributed in India among children in the eastern and southern states, and those in north, western, and central India, are routinely denied this rich source of protein. Most of these are also states where the Bharatiya Janata Party currently rules, with some exceptions.

eggs map

While 12 states in India give eggs to children as part of the mid-day meal scheme, two states give glasses of milk or bananas instead. All states which offer eggs also serve fruits to vegetarian states, according to Narayan. No nutritional programme that serves eggs makes it mandatory for vegetarian children to consume them. But the policy influence of vegetarianism is such that all children, including tribals and other groups of severely disadvantaged communities, are denied eggs. Scroll details the up-hill battle faced by right to food campaigners in various states to get eggs included in state-run nutritional schemes.

Read: India Is Home To Quarter Of The World's Hungry

States that do serve eggs besides those already mentioned, include Jammu & Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, Jharkhand (currently BJP-ruled), and Puducherry.

eggs map

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India's mid day meal scheme