The Madhya Pradesh government of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is no stranger to controversial decisions that have more than a whiff of conservatism about them. In the past, this government has enthusiastically extolled the virtues of cow urine, and even claimed that liberal application of cow dung is one of the few ways to escape nuclear radiation. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that staunch vegetarian Chouhan has imposed a strict no-eggs rule in anganwadi meals for tribal children, aged between three and six, under the Integrated Child Development Services in three MP districts. This, despite the fact that eggs are an easy source of protein, vitamins and minerals — all too essential in a country that has the highest rate of malnutrition in the world, higher even than sub-Saharan Africa. Malnutrition contributes to more than a third of all child deaths, and according to the World Health Organisation, close to 1.3 million children die every year in India because they are undernourished. Roughly half the children under six in Madhya Pradesh are underweight. These shameful data cast an even more unflattering light on Chouhan’s unscientific crusade against serving eggs.
Yet, Chouhan is by no means the only chief minister to deny children the vast nutritional benefits of eggs. In much of the so-called Hindi heartland, including Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan, eggs are a no-no. The dietary habits of children in these states are strictly policed. But in much of the south, and especially in more vulnerable districts, eggs are included in midday meal programmes or anganwadi meals. Objections to serving eggs are usually justified under the guise of not offending people’s sentiments. But this explanation fails to account for how many might be offended by the imposition of a minority’s (vegetarians) dietary preferences upon a majority, particularly given that the targeted population, such as tribals and Dalits, do not share this aversion. And it also runs up against Mahatma Gandhi’s contention that eggs are no more or less vegetarian than milk.
Chouhan, serving his third successive term as chief minister, has long been projected as one of the BJP’s more moderate, growth-friendly faces. But this current pursuit undermines that carefully cultivated image, so essential for running a government that finds acceptance among a diverse cross-section of citizens.