Child nutrition is prime-time news only when a tragedy occurs. Child undernutrition is no less a tragedy but rarely recognised as such.
Attention to it, following the Madhya Pradesh chief minister’s rejection of a proposal to introduce eggs in anganwadis is significant and welcome.
Few people realise food intake in India is very poor. According to the 2005-06 National Family Health Survey, around 10 per cent of breastfed children aged six to 23 months had meat, fish, poultry, egg or milk products the day before the survey. Among children who are not breastfed, the figures are equally bad.
In a TV debate, a BJP spokesperson praised milk as the best source of protein, failing to mention that MP does not provide that either at anganwadis or schools. The urgent need to improve the quality of food provided in the mid-day meal (MDM) and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) schemes has not been adequately recognised.
Cost is a major constraint. Allocations for child nutrition programmes are quite small (Rs 5-7 per child per day). Only states where the government is committed to the issues make additional allocations required to provide nutritious foods such as eggs. This year’s cuts in Central allocations for ICDS and MDM are likely to strain state budgets further.
Perishability and fear of adulteration impede improvements in food quality. Though milk and dal are protein-rich, both can easily be diluted and milk is perishable. Creative thinking can lead to solutions. In Karnataka, milk powder is supplied.
Eggs provide a nutritious and affordable solution. They contain all the nutrients (except vitamin C) required by small children and are generally more nutrient-rich than vegetarian options — without the problems of perishability and adulteration). People can easily monitor whether they have got their full entitlement, whereas that’s quite difficult with milk or dal. Further, eggs are important for infants, as they are nutrition-dense. In Odisha, eggs have emerged as the perfect “take-home ration” for children under three. Children also seem to love eggs.
At a mixed-caste government school in Shimoga, Karnataka, when asked to raise their hand if they would like an egg, almost all hands went up.
Recent arguments for denying eggs to children and forcing vegetarianism on them include: the strongest animals, horses and elephants, are vegetarian; Sant Ravidas was vegetarian, so all Dalits should be like him; as Dalits cannot afford non-vegetarian food anyway, schools and anganwadis need not provide eggs; separate seating arrangements might be difficult to manage. Without saying it explicitly, the message has been clear: rather than hurt the sentiments of a few among the so-called upper castes, it is better to keep eggs out.
Caste resistance is an important part of why northern and western states do not provide eggs. Often, these arguments are disguised as “rational”. First, create an impression that if eggs are on the menu, vegetarians will be forced to eat them (ignoring that vegetarians can be given fruit instead). Then, dress it up as a “freedom to choose” issue. Ironically, those who deny free choice to non-vegetarians are the ones levelling this allegation.
Karnataka provides eggs in anganwadis, but not in school meals. Why? Quite likely, this is because the Akshaya Patra Foundation is a big player in the MDM programme but not in the ICDS. Since 2007, the BJP has resisted eggs. That year, two BJP leaders disagreed on the issue. When religious leaders opposed eggs, the government caved in. The Congress is not very different. It announced eggs in the MDM scheme only for the northern nutritionally deprived districts, but even that has not taken off.
Instead of surrendering to the egg-resisters, states like MP and Karnataka should learn from others where opposition, if any, was overcome. It is unfair to sacrifice children’s right to nutrition to spurious anti-egg arguments from a small minority among the upper castes.
The writer is associate professor, economics, IIT Delhi