June 9, 2015, 12:02 AM IST Jean Dreze in TOI Edit Page |  Edit PageIndia  | TOI

Chouhan and other state leaders must not ban this super-food for growing children from midday meals

Many Indian states have started providing eggs with midday meals, either in schools or in anganwadis or both. This is the best thing that has happened for a long time in the field of social policy.

Indian children are among the most undernourished in the world. They are starved of protein, vitamins, iron and many other essential nutrients. Eating eggs regularly could help them to grow, thrive and think. Indeed, eggs are a kind of super-food for growing children. They contain all essential nutrients except for Vitamin C.

There are other arguments for including eggs in midday meals. First, most children (especially those from poor families) love to eat eggs. Serving eggs with the midday meal helps to boost school attendance and create a nice environment for children.

Second, eggs  could give a new lease of life to the Integrated Child Development Services, still a fledgling programme in many states. Third, poultry is a useful source of local employment for rural households and women’s self-help groups.

Eggs first appeared in school meals in states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra  Pradesh. Today, Tamil Nadu provides eggs five times a week in schools and three times a week in anganwadis. Bu t other states are catching up fast. Odisha, for instance, serves eggs  three times a week in anganwadis and twice a week in schools. Among other major states, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal have recently joined the egg club. Even the poorest states, evidently, can afford it.

The experience so far is overwhelmingly positive. Eggs are extremely popular among children, and quite safe – i am not aware of any incident of food poisoning. Nor have i heard of complaints from upper-caste parents being a major problem: wherever eggs are part of the midday meal menu, there is also a vegetarian option (for example a banana).

In light of this experience, there is every reason to go for eggs across the  country. Why, then, are egg proposals  being repeatedly shot down in a few states, notably Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Rajasthan?

In each case, the story is the same: the state government was held hostage to a tiny vegetarian (more precisely, semi-vegan) lobby. As a vegetarian myself, I am dismayed by the attitude of my fellow vegetarians.Surely, vegetarianism is about abstaining from certain food products, not about enforcing abstention on others.

The egg resisters have been at a loss to come up with a rational argument to defend their position. Leaving aside more eccentric claims (for example elephants prove that there is strength in vegetarianism), their main contention is that there are alternatives, such as milk or bananas.

But bananas do not come close to eggs in nutritional value, and milk raises serious safety issues. Being a perishable food, it is also difficult to distribute efficiently. Further, as Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, milk is no more vegetarian than eggs in any rational sense. In any case, why look for alternatives when the humble egg is an effective, safe, well-tested, affordable and popular option?

Ultimately, the resistance to eggs has to do with caste and class. Restrictions on choice and sharing of food play a crucial role in enforcement of the caste system. The self-appointed guardians of these restrictions typically come from privileged castes who have a stake in that system.

Often they also come from privileged classes who can afford nutritious food for their children without having to rely on school meals. Their dogged insistence on having their way  is essentially an upper-caste affirmation that “what we say goes”.

Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s recent veto  against eggs in Madhya Pradesh contrasts with the quiet manner in which eggs were introduced in Bihar about a year ago. When Jiten Ram Manjhi, then chief minister of Bihar,  heard of the idea of serving eggs in anganwadis, he supported it immediately.

Coming from a poor Musahar family, and having known hunger in his childhood, he understood what  it would mean for poor children to get an egg at school. He explained himself how he knew many Musahar children who had never eaten an egg. Within weeks, the Bihar government started implementing the proposal.

Interestingly there have been no reports of vocal opposition from upper-caste parents in Bihar or in any other states where eggs were introduced recently. At countless public functions, there are vegetarian and non-vegetarian queues for food, and i have never seen vegetarians run away in disgust – why would the same arrangement be a problem in schools? Contrary to their claims, the anti-egg militants are not voicing  the sentiment of a large constituency but acting as an authoritarian minority.

Finally, I sympathise with animal rights activists who are batting for brutalised farm animals. I have seen myself how pigs are treated in industrial farms, and that is how I gave up meat and fish (not eggs!). But scuttling poor children’s right to  nutritious food is not the best way to go about improving the lot of farm animals. Felicitating Shivraj Singh Chouhan for his veto,  as if it were a great gesture of compassion for animals, strikes me as a case of severe woolly-headedness.  Hopefully children’s interests (indeed, their rights) will prevail sooner or later.

Caste, class and eggs