Why India’s vegetarian elite are accused of underfeeding their children

India is in the midst of a kind of war – a war over egg consumption. Is, or is not. In fact, the question relates to whether the country’s government should provide poor, malnourished children with free eggs.

It all started when Shivraj Chowhan, the Madhya Pradesh state minister, pulled back a proposal to provide free eggs to the State Day Care Center in some parts of the state.

“These areas have a high rate of malnutrition. says Sachin Jain, a local food rights activist.

Such a statement did not convince Chouhan. According to Indian newspapers, he has publicly promised not to allow free eggs to be provided as long as he is state minister. Why such fierce resistance? The fact is that the local (religious) Jane community, which is strictly vegetarian and has a strong position in the state, has previously prevented the introduction of free eggs in the diet of the Day Care Center and schools. Shivraj Chouzan is a high-caste Hindu and, more recently, a vegetarian.

Madhya Pradesh is a predominantly vegetarian state, along with some others such as Karnataka, Rajasthan and Gujarat. For years, politically active vegetarians have kept eggs out of school lunches and day hospitals.

But here’s the thing: even though the people of these states are vegetarians, the poor, starving people, as a rule, are not. “They would eat eggs and anything if they could afford to buy them,” says Deepa Sinha, an economist at the Center for Emissions Research in New Delhi and an expert on school and preschool feeding programs in India.

India’s free school lunch program affects some 120 million of India’s poorest children, and day hospitals also care for millions of young children. Thus, the issue of providing free eggs is not something trivial.

The scriptures of the Hindu religion suggest certain notions of the purity of people belonging to the higher castes. Sinha explains: “You cannot use a spoon if someone else is using it. You cannot sit next to someone who eats meat. You cannot eat food prepared by a person who eats meat. They consider themselves the dominant layer and are ready to impose it on anyone.”

The recent ban on bull and buffalo slaughter in the neighboring state of Maharashtra also reflects all of the above. While most Hindus do not eat beef, lower caste Hindus, including the Dalits (the lowest caste in the hierarchy), rely on meat as a source of protein.

Some states have already included eggs in free meals. Sinha recalls a time when she visited a school in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh to supervise the school lunch program. The state has only recently launched a program to include eggs in the diet. One of the schools put a box in which students left complaints and suggestions about school food. “We opened the box, one of the letters was from a girl in grade 4,” recalls Sinha. “It was a Dalit girl, she wrote:“ Thank you very much. I ate an egg for the first time in my life.”

Milk, being a good alternative to eggs for vegetarians, comes with a lot of controversy. It is often diluted by suppliers and is easily contaminated. In addition, its storage and transportation requires a more developed infrastructure than that available in remote rural areas of India.

“I am a vegetarian,” says Jane, “I have never touched an egg in my life. But I am able to get protein and fats from other sources such as ghee (clarified butter) and milk. Poor people don’t have that opportunity, they can’t afford it. And in that case, eggs become the solution for them.”

“We still have a big food shortage problem,” says Deepa Sinha. “One in three children in India are malnourished.”

Leave a Reply