In the BJP-ruled Karnataka, giving eggs to children who are ridden by malnutrition, has become the latest ground for a political and ideological battle. Under pressure from seers, the Karnataka government is reported to be reconsidering its decision to include boiled eggs in midday meals for school students in seven districts — Raichur, Bidar, Kalaburagi, Yadgir, Vijayapura, Koppal and Ballari.
These seven districts have the most abysmal records of nutrition among children in classes between 1 and 8. Studies show that in Yadgir, almost 74% of the children in this age bracket suffer from malnutrition. The other six districts follow, with 72.4% of the children in Kalaburagi, 72.3% in Ballari, 70.7% in Koppal, 70.6% in Raichur, 69.1% in Bidar and 68% of children in Viayapura are reported to be malnourished.
Amid this serious condition among children, several Lingayat seers and Hindu religious leaders from across the state are opposing the distribution of eggs, which is a major source of protein and one of the solutions to fight malnutrition. According to the religious leaders, distributing eggs would influence the ‘food culture’ of the state. Sri Vishwaprasanna Theertha Swami of the Pejavar Matha in Udupi (National President of Lingayat Dharma Mahasabha), Channa Basavananda Swami, Bhattaraka Charukeerthi Swami (who is a prominent Jain seer) were among those who urged the Karnataka government to not ‘force’ vegetarian students to eat eggs.
While some of them suggested that the state government can instead give the money earmarked for eggs to the students in cash, others suggested that the protein intake can be supplemented by providing pulses, milk and fruits. There are reports that the state is even looking at groundnut chikki as an alternate source of proteins.
However, nutritionists and activists dismiss all of these as possible substitutes for eggs. “The protein that students get from eggs cannot be substituted even with sprouts. Eggs take around 7-8 hours to get digested, so students are often full for a long time, helping them concentrate on studies,” says Narasimhappa TV, a researcher who focuses on child development and nutrition.
Narasimhappa has worked closely with Anganwadis in Karnataka and was appointed as an assistant advisor to the Supreme Court of India in the ‘Right to Food’ case. He says that in places like Koppal, Bidar, Gangavathi and Raichur, where poverty rates are high, a majority of the students who attend government schools and anganwadis are from economically and socially backward communities.
Explaining the demography of those who attend government school in these areas, he says, “Parents here often cannot provide three meals a day to their children and they often do not even get breakfast. Students cannot concentrate on studies on an empty stomach.
“In some places where Akshaya Patra provides food, they cook food without onion and garlic. In the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, people are accustomed to this in their local cuisine, so children cannot adapt to food that they are not familiar with.”
A teacher who works in a government school in Raichur concurred. The teacher, whose name cannot be disclosed for the safety of her job, has been working there for over 16 years. “Ninety percent of the students who attend schools here are non-vegetarian. Many of them belong to parents who work in fields as agricultural workers. Invariably, they cannot provide students with nutritious food at home nor can they afford vegetables and ghee. So giving them eggs in schools will help them immensely,” she says.
Even as the state government’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) plans to carry out a survey of students in the seven districts, an official from the department who spoke to TNM on the condition of anonymity says that while the survey ostensibly aims to understand how the government can bring in measures to tackle malnutrition, they will also assess how many students want eggs as part as their mid-day meals.
Activist Sharada Gopal says that Chikki (a snack made from peanuts and jaggery) cannot be a replacement for eggs in any way. “The government cannot take this decision based on the demands of a small group of people from the upper-caste. We have been campaigning for eggs in mid-day meals since 2005 and this is a big group,” she says. “This is a case of right wing versus rational thinking. They want to bring their brahminical thinking to everything,” she adds.
A source in the ruling BJP tells TNM that after the religious leaders spoke out against the distribution of eggs, a senior RSS leader from Karnataka ‘advised’ the state government that such a move can be ‘ideologically not prudent’ in the state. The leader reportedly was of the opinion that it makes for ‘bad optics’ for the state government.
In the past, too, previous governments have faced opposition over the distribution of eggs in schools. In 2007, when JD(S) and BJP had formed a government in coalition, then Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy had withdrawn the scheme and had said that the government would provide milk to students. Many religious leaders, including Suttur seer Shivarathri Deshikendra Swamy, had objected to eggs then too.
The Congress government, too, had attempted to provide eggs with midday meals in government schools but had again faced opposition from seers like Dayananda Swamy. Then Chief MinisterSiddaramaiah had withdrawn the scheme in schools but continued to provide boiled eggs in Anganwadis.
JD(S) social media chief Prathap Kanagal says that eggs should be provided not just to the students in those seven districts but across the state. Speaking to TNM, he says that the controversy is unnecessary and that religion should not be linked to the issue of malnutrition among children. “Students who do not wish to eat eggs are not being forced, right? They can eat bananas instead. We are urging that all students in government schools across the state should be provided with the option of eating eggs,” he says.
Currently in India, other than Karnataka, seven other states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Orissa, West Bengal and Jharkhand – provide eggs to school students. Incidentally, not a single one of them is a BJP-ruled state.
Watch: Why Karnataka is seeing protests over eggs in mid-day meals