It’s not Egg alone; it’s a fight for Children’s Right to Life through Cultural Freedom!

Sachin Kumar Jain

(Social Researcher, Trainer and Ashoka Fellow)

In Madhya Pradesh, the politics of neglect and prohibition against children has been nurtured inside the egg. It is exactly 10 years since the debate of providing eggs in mid-day meal (in schools) and nutritious food in Anganwadis has been raging in the state. The erstwhile BJP government started with opposing eggs and when the Congress government took rein in 2018, it too silently decided to continue with the opposition. Menaces of malnutrition and high Infant Mortality continues and the political parties also seem to be adamant that they would not look at the real form of community culture with logical viewpoint, but through prism of communal politics and higher-caste exploitative attitude. Opposing the provision of eggs in nutritive food programmes proves that the ruling class does not want to establish a feeling of co-existence with the deprived sections. An anecdote in this context is pertinent to be shared. In October 2010, during a discussion with a team of Asian Human Rights Commission, erstwhile chairperson of the MP State Commission for Protection of Children’s Rights (SCPCR) and retired Justice Sheela Khanna had suggested ‘lakhs of children (in MP) are malnourished. It s not possible to treat all of them at Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres (NRCs), therefore, Brahmin priest should be appointed at these centres. They can make birth charts of the children and those children who have potential to become good citizens should be treated.’

Scientific studies have proven that children are unable to come out of cycle of malnutrition due to imbalance of protein, micronutrients and fats in their diet. There is a provision of 12 to 18 gm protein intake in the nutritious diet under various programmes and schemes including the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). But due to the inherent modal shortcomings in the programmes involving Take Home Ration and Hot Cooked Meal, children are constantly battling deficiency of quality protein, micronutrients and fats.

Since in Madhya Pradesh organizations and companies have been made contractors for supply of nutritious diet, there is a feeling that entry of private companies might get difficult if eggs are included as an alternative in the food. However, it is a proven fact that inclusion of eggs in diet, 85% of malnourished children who do not suffer from any infection or particular ailment could be treated without help of any medical intervention or expert.

Why Eggs are Important?

Bigger section of the society has a culture of non-vegetarian food and it has been a main source of protein in their life for thousands of years. Due to increasing control of State and Capitalists over natural resources, these communities started becoming deprived of their food and forced to live with hunger and malnutrition. Forest Dwelling communities never went to the State with a demand to start programs like ICDS or PDS. It was the Governments who started these programs to facilitate the land and forest acquisitions.  All this happened with the imperialist rule and continued after the independence. Firstly they (the forest and rural society) were made dependent on the System through the exclusionary rule making process and then Fundamentalist Politics started deciding what they will eat and what not!

The provision of egg is important because it is a low-cost and locally available alternative with high Protein component with biological value of 100. The Biological Value of protein in pulses (daal) is between 60 and 70. To compensate for the quality protein in egg, children would have to be fed 20-25 almonds. Egg is also source of all vitamins except vitamin C. The amino acids in the eggs are similar to human tissues and thus human body can absorb them cent percent. Eggs are easy to cook and there are no chances of adulteration. Also monitoring of the supply stock by number is easier. If there is the will, establishing of a system of its use and distribution in nutritious food is possible. Vegetarian children could be offered fruits and fresh milk instead.

During the past three decades, there were at least three occasions for policy decision in this context, but the proposal was opposed and gotten scrapped by those people who are not facing the menace of malnutrition themselves and probably never consume nutritious food under government programmes. In year 2016, the agriculture ministry of GoI wrote to the Government of Madhya Pradesh, recommending inclusion of eggs in nutritious food programme. The erstwhile minister Kusum Mehedale had then advocated inclusion of fish in the diet.

Reality of Supplementary Nutrition Program in MP

MP has a provision of providing hot cooked nutritious food to the children in age group of 3 to 6 years through women self-help groups (SHGs). But the state government, especially the women and child development department, is making all efforts to not allow these SHGs to function effectively, so that the narrative of only company-run centralized system of supply of food could be build. The women in SHGs get barely Rs 1000 as honorarium for cooking nutritious food for 50 children for 22-25 days in a month and have to pay about 20% ‘cut’ to get the payment for the food raw material. Also they have to face insulting behavior. In such situation, these women SHGs function under the duress of bureaucracy and political system.

Huge corruption and profiteering has come to fore in the Take Home Ration programme (supply of ready to eat packaged food for children between six months and three years and pregnant/lactating mothers). It was found that three joint venture companies with private holdings were keeping 30-35% of the allotted funds under the scheme as their margin, right under the nose of the government.

Even a look at nutrition standards of the current food supply suggests excess of carbohydrates. If provision of eggs is made, the profiteering companies are likely to lose the supply orders.

The challenge of malnutrition in Madhya Pradesh

In such situation, the most impacted group is that of children below five years of age and pregnant women. According to the fourth round of National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4 of 2015-16), 42% children below five years of age are afflicted by stunting while 42.8% are underweight. Similarly, 25.8% children are suffering from wasting. Figures also show that 18.6% children are afflicted with severe stunting, 9.8% face severe malnutrition, while 68.9% suffer from anaemia. It is worth mentioning that in MP, the level of malnutrition increases as the age of child increases after birth. The NFHS-4 figures show that only 18.1% children below six months of age suffered from stunting but the figure went up to 41.6% in the age group of 12-17 months and 48.7% in age group of 36-47 months. Similarly, 29.2% children below six months were underweight, but the figure went up to 45.9% in age group of 36-47 months.

The same survey shows that in MP only 37.9% children start getting supplementary diet (over and above breastfeeding) at the age of six months and only 35.7% children get supplementary diet two to three times along with breast feeding. This means that with growing age, starvation and malnutrition increases.

The latest Sample Registration Survey (May, 2019) figures show that MP has the highest infant mortality rate (47 per 1000 live births) and there was not even a single point drop when compared to report released in 2017. Without doubt there is a direct relation between the high level of malnutrition and very high infant mortality rate in Madhya Pradesh.

Communal politics overshadows nutrition security of children

It is absolutely necessary in such situation that a system of providing diet with proper protein, micronutrients and fats to the children below five years of age could be established with a role of community and families of children in monitoring. There is no doubt that there is need to strengthen the efforts of mitigating malnutrition by providing quality nutritious diet through Anganwadis.

Given the conditions in Madhya Pradesh, the Right to Food Campaign had in February, 2009 called upon the state government to include eggs as an alternative in the nutritious food programmes (through ICDS and Mid-Day Meal Scheme), so that nutrition rights of the children were ensured. A presentation of scientific outlook in this regard was also presented before the erstwhile women and child development minister and officers. It was the time when the process of setting up the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Child Health and Nutrition Mission was underway and the effort was to ensure that eggs as an alternative should become a part of the nutritious food programme at policy level. The Campaign has always taken a clear stand that the alternative of eggs should be offered to only those children who have no religious or cultural impediments in accepting it. The availability of eggs was to be an alternative and not mandatory.

The Jain community in MP had then strongly opposed the move and the erstwhile CM had announced on the basis of ‘personal religious sentiments’ that MP was a ‘vegetarian state’ in cultural context and thus children in his state would not get the alternative of having eggs. Despite being the chief minister, he did not know that the biggest chunk of tribal populace (16 Million) resided in MP. In all 89 development blocks are tribal-dominated and there are 30 Million more people who come from deprived sections, have high levels of malnutrition and do not have any problem in consuming eggs.

On one side, the Hindutva-oriented government was against eggs and Brahmin and Jain communities also want to project vegetarianism as universal culture. But the paradox is that despite the deeply negative impact of alcohol on society, health and economy, these religious groups do not oppose those policies of the government where 20% increase in consumption of liquor is targeted every year. The Government earns Rs 15,000 crore revenue from liquor sale as 29.6% men and 1.6% women in MP consume liquor.

According to the Sample Registration System baseline survey of 2014, in MP, 51.1% males and 47.7% females are non-vegetarians. However, due to religious reasons, a big chunk of population is known to hide its food preferences. An important decision for the 4.5 Million malnourished children was rejected by the Chief Minister on the basis of ‘personal likes and dislikes’ by saying that since he is strict vegetarian himself, there would be arrangement for eggs at Anganwadis.

Later in year 2015, the erstwhile principal secretary of women and child development department, JN Kansotia moved a proposal on inclusion of eggs as alternative in food served at Anganwadi, at a cabinet meeting of state government. But the ‘upper caste’ ministers once again raised objection to the proposal and it was rejected. These developments make it clear that the influence of Brahmins and higher castes is so deep on Indian politics that there is no place left for the cultural identity, choices, needs and priorities of the other 90% section of the society. Even the 70 tribal and Scheduled Caste MLAs (from both BJP and Congress) have been made so weak that they have been unable to put across their opinions. It has become clear that out of 230 MLAs in the state, the rights to take decision on policy and cultural aspects of governance rests only with 10 influential MLAs who represent influential communities like Brahmins and Jains.

As every year, 80,000 to 90,000 children below five years of age die in Madhya Pradesh, the government at this point announced that milk would be distributed in Anganwadis to fulfill the need of proteins. The Anganwadis were to be supplied with milk powder packets. The powder was to be mixed with water and given to children. However, the lack of taste, poor quality of available water and lack of budget led the scheme to be discontinued. With this experiment, the government proved it was totally unaware of the societal trends, ground reality of government system and intricacies of malnutrition menace.

Traditionally, tribal communities do not consume milk and are non-vegetarian society at large. The developmental policies during past four to five decades deprived them of their nutrition sources. They were displaced from their lands and jungles and made to depend on market for their food. Poverty ensured that they could not consume non-vegetarian food as much as earlier. Also in this duration, Hindutva elements carried out a process of ‘Hinduisation’ of the tribal communities. As a result, the menace of malnutrition only increased. Also in this period, under communal politics, Muslims and Christians were also attacked on their ways of life and food choices. For example, there is so much pressure related to shifting of slaughter houses that in Bhopal no decision on shifting of old slaughter houses is becoming possible.

Experiments with eggs

As soon as discussion on this topic started in year 2009, it was immediately given religious-political form. Higher caste communities have had deep impact on Madhya Pradesh politics. The three most influential ministers in the erstwhile government came from these communities and played big role in killing the idea of eggs as alternative, even before it could be given shape. However, some officers of the government were in agreement with the idea of introducing eggs in Anganwadi nutritious food and mid-day meal. Erstwhile Indore Collector Raghvendra Singh, despite political impediments, ensured availability of eggs and milk at rural Anganwadi of the district, in keeping with demand of the community, by using local resources of Gram Panchayats in year 2010. This led to 38% increase in Anganwadi attendance. But as soon as higher-caste ministers got inkling about this, they created pressure to immediately stop the initiative. In five months of this initiative, eggs and milk were distributed to 4132 severely malnourished children and 3077 of them recorded increase in weight, 1452 children improved into moderate malnourishment category in the five months, while 310 were declared malnutrition free.

It is to be noted that neither the local community nor the parents of the kids going to Anganwadi opposed the distribution of eggs, including even those who did not eat eggs. Also eggs were distributed in Khandwa, Shivpuri and Mandla with no opposition from the community whatsoever.

Inherent contradictions within State

The animal husbandry department of the government that opposes eggs for children has a target of annual increase of 12% in egg production between years 2015 – 2025 to take the production to 365.6 crores from 117.7 crores. Also it has target to increase the production of meat to 1,53,000 metric tonne from 59,000 metric tonnes. This means that when it is matter of trade, liquor, eggs and meat become legitimate, but when it comes to logical initiative to mitigate the menace of malnutrition, a sentiment of boycott on religious basis crops up. The crux of the matter is just that community should be having freedom under the framework of Constitution of India to decide what are their culture and food habits? The government should just implement the constitution.

In the later initiatives, in the year 2018, under the process of creating people’s manifesto for better society during the State Assembly polls, a demand was made to the political parties to promise inclusion of eggs as alternative in nutritious food programmes in Madhya Pradesh. Those who did not eat eggs could be given option of fresh fruits and milk. The BJP was anyway opposed to the idea, but even the Congress refused to talk on this point, because they too had adopted a ‘Hinduta’ stand and their leadership felt that the vegetarian society in Madhya Pradesh would be offended by the idea. However in Chhattisgarh, the Congress government took a decision to give the option of eggs in mid-day meal scheme, immediately after assuming power in 2018. In this way, currently 13 states of the country are providing eggs to the children under nutritious food programme.

But the experience in Madhya Pradesh shows that communal and patriarchal politics causes the maximum delay in providing right of respectful life to children. The link of this situation directly connects to the fact that in independent India, the dalit, tribal and minority communities got minimal chances to be part of the policy making process. Therefore Hindutva ideologies take policy decisions on basis of their orthodox views and availability or unavailability of eggs in mid-day meal schemes is a good example of this fact.

 

 

 

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