Noon meal without egg

Print edition : April 03, 2015

Bill Clinton, former U.S. President, serving a midday meal in a government school near Jaipur on July 16, 2014. The NGO Akshaya Patra Foundation is assigned the task of supplying the middday meal in most parts of Rajasthan. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

ON a chilly winter afternoon a group of children sitting across a courtyard waits for food to be served. After a modest meal of “dal, roti and aloo ki subzi” is served, one of the boys stands up and starts reciting a mantra. The rest follow suit and the air is filled with chants of “Hare Krishna Hare Rama”. This is the routine at the government primary school in Bhawargarh village in Rajasthan’s Baran district. Mohan Singh Chauhan, a teacher at this school, said the NGO Akshay Patra had introduced this ritual and forced schools to comply.

The food is strictly vegetarian. Chauhan shudders even at the mere mention of the possibility of eggs being served. “This is part of Indian culture. Even in America, people are inspired by vegetarianism. We should promote our culture. It is important to eat vegetarian food for becoming a good, cultured human being. Besides, all the necessary nutrients are available in vegetarian food,” he said. Hemraj Nagar, another teacher, echoed this sentiment. He said: “No matter what students have outside school, I think vegetarian food is suitable for midday meals in schools.”

People from the Sahariya tribe form the majority in Baran district, which hit headlines in 2002 for starvation deaths. Though the situation has improved considerably since then, malnutrition among members of this tribe continues to be a problem. Also, these tribes have traditionally consumed non-vegetarian food, including fish, chicken and eggs. Even the food served as part of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in anganwadis here is vegetarian.

Rajasthan is one of the few States that have resisted the introduction of eggs in the midday meal scheme bowing to pressure from upper-caste lobbies as well as private contractors who supply the midday meals. According to the findings of the Project Evaluation of Entitlement Programmes (PEEP) survey in May-June 2013, initiated by researchers of the Indian Institute of Technology across 10 States—Rajasthan, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh—a number of States had started serving eggs in schools and angwanwadi midday meals. Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh were among the States that had excluded eggs from the menu.

The resistance to the introduction of eggs in the midday meal appears to be part of a larger policing of the dietary habits of schoolchildren aided by upper-caste vigilantism, private contractors as well as school teachers. Jyoti Sahariya, a student from Kaparikheda village, said the government secondary school she goes to serves “dal and roti” every day and occasionally “poori” and vegetables. Her friend Bhim Singh Sahariya said he would not mind some variation in the meal. Both of their parents were labourers who occasionally found work under the NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) and could not afford eggs often.

At the government secondary school in Bilasgarh district, the teachers said that eggs could not be included in the midday meal as some parents would object to it. Kamal Kumar Meena, a teacher, said: “Children from all castes study here—Brahmin, Gujjar, Rajput, Meena, Sahariya. Some upper-caste students will refuse to eat the midday meal if eggs are cooked here. The parents of children from some communities will raise objections.” However, some of the students that this correspondent spoke to did not raise any objections to eggs being served even if they themselves would not eat them. In the 7th standard class of about 50 students, only half the number ate eggs. However, none of the students said that they would have a problem if eggs were served as part of the midday meal.

Workers of the Akshaya Patra Foundation, an NGO assigned the task of supplying the midday meal in most parts of the State, showed clear discomfort with the idea of eggs being introduced in the meal. Nawalkishore Sharma of Akshay Patra said: “The norms for what can be included in the midday meal are decided by the State government. As of now, eggs are not permissible as part of the menu. In Rajasthan, 90 per cent of the population is Hindu. Of this, almost 70 per cent is vegetarian. It is not feasible to introduce non-vegetarian food here.”

Local journalist Firoz Khan said: “Both the upper-caste lobbies at the local level and the BJP government in power will not allow the introduction of eggs in the midday meal here.” Moti Lal, an activist with the NGO Sankalp that works with the Sahariya tribals, said: “Poverty and manlnutrition are serious issues among the Sahariya tribals because of the destruction of traditional livelihoods. Though the situation has improved from earlier, there is still a problem with getting access to nutritious food.”

A number of anganwadi workers complained of the lack of nutritious elements in the midday meals. Santosh Sharma, a worker in the anganwadi in Bhawargarh, said there were 14 malnourished children, between seven months to five years, in the block as of this January. Sharma said,:“The baby mix that is provided for kids consists of wheat and sugar. It is almost unpalatable. The dalia (porridge) and khichdi that is provided for lunch does not help in dealing with acute malnutrition problems.”

Kalpana Biswas, an anganwadi worker in Bilasgarh village, said: “Children coming to the anganwadi are fed up of eating the same kind of food. This food is not helping to solve the problems of malnutrition. I had approached the ICDS office in Kishanganj requesting for more variety in the food, but nothing came of it.”

Lalit Kumar Gupta, District Collector of Baran, pointed out the State government’s stance on the issue: “The decision not to include eggs in the midday meal is a policy decision of the State government, which I cannot comment on. But there are no problems with the implementation of the midday meal scheme as of now.

The food allocated under the scheme is being made available to all schools. In view of the problems of malnutrition of the Sahariya tribes, the State government gives them twice the amount of food allocated for other communities under the midday meal scheme.”

There have been instances of other States resisting the introduction of eggs in the midday meal scheme. In 2007, in Karnataka, Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy put on hold the proposal to give eggs once a week under the State government’s midday meal scheme coming under pressure from Hindu and Jain religious leaders. In 2013, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah introduced a scheme to supply eggs and milk to malnourished children in Gulbarga, Bidar, Raichur, Koppal, Bellary and Yadgir.

Sagnik Dutta in Baran district, Rajasthan & New Delhi