Karnataka govt ignored protests against eggs in mid-day meal and why it needs to continue | Azad Times

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According to a Niti Aayog report from August 2021, there are about 3.47 lakh moderately malnourished children and 7,908 severely malnourished children in the state.

A survey conducted by the Karnataka’s Department of Public Instruction, as of December 14, 2022, showed that about 80% of children from Class 1-8 chose eggs for their mid-day meal. Out of 44 lakh students surveyed from all four divisions of Karnataka, 38.37 lakh said they wanted eggs, while only 3.37 and 2.27 lakh chose bananas and chikki (peanut-jaggery bar) respectively. According to a Niti Aayog report from August 2021, there are about 3.47 lakh moderately malnourished children and 7,908 severely malnourished children in the state. This is mainly concentrated in the Kalyana-Karnataka region, with the districts of Kalaburagi, Raichur and Koppal topping the list. 

In the first half of 2022, a study was conducted in Yadgir district and Gadag as a control district, where they provided either eggs or bananas alongside the standard mid-day meal. Aside from about 98% of children choosing to consume eggs, “allaying the fears of a cultural or traditional barrier,” the researchers attributed a positive weight gain and an increase in BMI (body mass index) due to this addition.

These studies reinforce that Karnataka government’s decision to introduce eggs in mid-day meals was a much needed one. However, this was not an easy decision as the government faced stiff opposition from powerful Hindu and Lingayat groups as well as some BJP leaders in the state.

The suggestion of providing eggs as a part of mid-day meal in school was first mentioned by a committee headed by Justice NK Patil in 2013, who submitted it as one of the 112 recommendations to tackle malnutrition especially in northern districts of Karnataka. Since then, the Karnataka government made several announcements to start distribution of eggs in schools and did so sporadically in a few places. Finally, in September 2021, the schools in seven districts of Raichur, Bidar, Ballari, Yadgir, Kalaburagi, Koppal and Vijayapura were provided eggs along with their mid-day meal. When the study in 2022 concluded that eggs were indeed popular and beneficial, the state decided to supply eggs for schools in the rest of the state. Hindu religious leaders such as Sri Vishwaprasanna Theertha Swami of the Pejavar Matha in Udupi (National President of Lingayat Dharma Mahasabha), Channa Basavananda Swami, Bhattaraka Charukeerthi Swami and Lingayat groups including Rashtriya Basava dal, Lingayat Dharma Mahasabha, Akkanagalambika Mahila Gana Karyakartharu, Basava Mantapa and the Rashtriya Basava dal, opposed the move.

Despite immense pressure from these groups, the Basavaraj Bommai government went ahead and decided to extend the supply of eggs throughout the state for 46 days in the academic year.

The battle to get eggs included

A National Education Policy (NEP) position paper was released in June 2022, purporting, “Given the small body frame of Indians, any extra energy provided through cholesterol by regular consumption of egg and meat leads to lifestyle disorders.” The paper, authored by a committee headed by John Vijay Sagar, the head of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NIMHANS, received much flak, even from six NIMHANS alumni who called the paper “outrageous, outdated, unscientific and frivolous.”

Though this may sound preposterous, this was just one of the many grounds on which the introduction of eggs was opposed. Some called the order exclusionary, others threatened agitation and court battles. 

For example, in August 2022, Tejaswini Ananth Kumar, the co-founder of Adamya Chetana, another NGO contracted to serve mid-day meals, tweeted that, “Why has our Karnataka govt decided to give eggs in mid-day meals? These are not the only source of nutrition. It is also exclusionary to many students who are vegetarians. Our policies are to be designed in such a way that every student has equal opportunity.” Tejaswini Ananth Kumar is the wife of late BJP leader Ananth Kumar and her NGO gives mid-day meals to over 2 lakh kids. 

Lingayat seer Channabasavananda Swamiji had said that schools would become military canteens if eggs were served and that grains and pulses should be given instead. He had also warned of a much severe protest if the order was not withdrawn.

But despite all the opposition, the Education Department’s pilot initiative to bring eggs into the mid-day meal scheme in the seven districts of Kalyana-Karnataka had favourable results. Once the results of the study showed desirable conclusions, there was an order to expand this to the entire state. Out of the Rs 34,711 crore approved under the PM Poshan Shakti Nirman scheme, about Rs 4,494 crore was kept for the supplementary nutrition programme so that children could be served eggs or alternatives along with the mid-day meal for 46 days in the 2022-23 academic year. 

Data endorses, but lack of will on ground

The data gives us a concrete picture of how many of these children have no apprehensions about eating eggs and come from communities that already do. However, things are not smooth on the ground. While a few schools complained that they did not have enough staff to allocate time for shelling eggs, the main opposition to this move was from NGOs and religious groups that objected to the provision of eggs due to their belief in a vegetarian diet. According to the Department of Public Instruction, there are about 71 NGOs that feed 9.31 lakh children across Karnataka. There were already controversies earlier around groups like Akshaya Patra not being ready to serve eggs, or use onion and garlic in their foods. Aside from not providing an effective solution to combat malnutrition, this has also created a problem where children dislike the taste of the food served, as it is different to what they are used to eating.

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health doctor and researcher working on the right to health and nutrition, said, “Only the very marginalised Dalit, Adivasi and OBC children access government and government-aided schools whereas most of the opposition is coming from groups whose children don’t even study in these schools.” She is no stranger to the issue. For more than 10 years now, Sylvia has been a part of a group of food rights activists in the state, who have been demanding eggs be supplied in schools. A good part of that fight has been about debunking myths about children being ‘forced’ to eat eggs, deftly separating and pushing nutrition and science over religious beliefs and persistently pushing successive state governments to include eggs in mid-day meals.

As an alternative, the state plans to provide two bananas or 60 grams of chikki for students who choose not to eat eggs. Yet, according to Dr Karpagam, “Bananas are not known for their protein content and chikki ends up being more of a sweet due to the jaggery in it instead of a protein-rich nutritious food.” She believes that the only suitable alternative is an extra glass of milk. 

Yet, schools are reluctant, according to a memo sent out on January 10 by Commissioner of the Department of Public Instruction Vishal R, calling attention to schools that seem to be providing vegetarian alternatives to children who opted for eggs. One of the main reasons given by the government for this inability to supply eggs regularly is because of the inflation in prices recently. In October, an egg used to cost Rs 4.20 which increased to Rs 5.80 in January. Even though there is a budget of Rs 6 per student for eggs, including transportation and other logistical charges, the money granted hasn’t been enough. 

One of the ways this has been tried to account for is by using the SDMC (School Development and Monitoring Committee) formed by parents, health workers and the headmaster of each school; to procure eggs locally rather than the centralised system. Since this puts the responsibility on individual members, which might not be the most efficient system, there has been some debate on whether a system like the Tamil Nadu tender system that procures eggs on a state level might be better.

According to Professor G Devegowda, president of the Institution of Veterinarians of Poultry Industry (IVPI), it is a lack of government will as to why there has not been a regular supply. “There is a fluctuation in egg prices, but it is minimal compared to other food items. Moreover, about a dozen states have been able to provide eggs more efficiently, and we have seen their nutrition improve,” he said.

Across India, 12 states and three union territories include eggs as part of their mid-day meals. States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have been able to provide eggs for at least three days a week.

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