Notion Eggs are Non-Vegetarian is Religious, Not Rational: Economist Jean Dreze on Midday Meal Row

File photo of economist and Right to Food activist Jean Dreze. (PTI)

File photo of economist and Right to Food activist Jean Dreze. (PTI)

As the decision to include eggs in midday meals triggers a storm in Chhattisgarh, economist and Right to Food activist Jean Dreze says egg vigilantism is not very different from cow vigilantism.

Sonal Matharu
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New Delhi: In January, the newly-elected Congress government in Chhattisgarh decided to include eggs at least twice a week in the midday meals given to children in schools under the National Food Security Act.

The decision was based on the food samples tested in 2017-18 from 19 districts across the state. The results showed that meals provided in only two schools met the prescribed calorie requirements. The protein requirement was met only in three school meals. In a state, where 38% children are malnourished, with rate being higher at 44% in children from Scheduled Tribes, the move to add eggs, a super food, was celebrated by many. But in July, in a state where 83% population consumes eggs, protests by minority vegetarian groups picked up steam, pressurising the state to withdraw the move.

Speaking to News18, economist and Right to Food activist Jean Dreze explains why eggs have no substitute and why adding these in school meals trigger controversy.

Edited excerpts:

India has one of the most malnourished children in the world and numerous scientific evidence, including National Institute of Nutrition reports, suggests that nutrition the eggs provide is unmatched. Why, then, the resistance to including eggs in midday meals?

The resistance comes mainly from a minority of upper-caste vegetarians. As a vegetarian myself, I am dismayed at their narrow-mindedness. Vegetarianism is about voluntary abstention from certain foods, not imposing one's preferences on others. Besides, the notion that eggs are non-vegetarian is an odd idea peculiar to India. As Gandhi himself pointed out, "He who can take milk should have no objection to taking sterile eggs". The notion that eggs are non-vegetarian but not milk is a religious belief, not a rational idea.

In a state where the majority population is non-vegetarian, why is including eggs in schools an issue?

You must be referring to Chhattisgarh, where non-vegetarians are not just a majority but an overwhelming majority. Well, egg vigilantism is not very different from cow vigilantism. It involves imposing your own religious beliefs on others, by force if necessary. The main difference is that in this case, it is a minority that is imposing its beliefs on the majority.

Does Chhattisgarh have a history of including eggs in anganwadi and midday meals? If yes, why was it stopped?

So far as I know, this is the first time that eggs are being introduced in schools or anganwadis in Chhattisgarh, on a state-wide basis at least. Remember,, there are very few instances of a BJP government providing eggs in midday meals. The main exception is Jharkhand, where a BJP government introduced eggs in anganwadis, but soon after that it reduced the number of eggs served in schools from three per week to two per week, taking away with one hand what had slipped from the other. Chhattisgarh had a BJP government from 2003 to December 2018, and eggs were a no-no throughout that period.

Do you see this matter escalating to anganwadi meals as well, or to other states?

It would be good for the matter to escalate until eggs in midday meals, five days a week, become a national norm for schools and anganwadis. There is, of course, little prospect of that happening under the Narendra Modi government. But the battle can at least be taken to specific states, like Madhya Pradesh. In its 2019 manifesto, the Congress party promised to include eggs in midday meals. If they are serious about it, then why not start in states with a Congress government?

In states which do serve eggs in midday meals, how big is it an issue with families that do not eat eggs?

I don't think that it is a significant issue. People are used to seeing vegetarian and non-vegetarian queues at marriage feasts and public functions. I have never seen a vegetarian objecting to that. The same arrangement has been widely accepted in schools, rightly so.

Can’t foods like bananas, milk and soya products make up for equally good alternatives?

I am not aware that anything matches the humble egg in terms of nutrition, affordability, popularity and safety. Eggs are also harder to siphon off than many other foods, because they are visible and easy to count. The alternatives you mention are no match. For instance, milk poses safety issues, and bananas are highly perishable. If eggs serve the purpose, why go further?

You wrote in a 2015 article that the issue of resisting eggs in food programmes is of caste and class. Why do you say that?

The caste angle is clear since the resistance comes mainly from upper-caste vegetarians. Most of them also belong to privileged classes, and that is what gives so much power and influence to this small minority. Their multiple privileges also create a huge social distance between them and poor children, which makes it difficult for them to empathise with a child who never gets nutritious food at home.

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