Vegetarian extremism in Karnataka: Lingayat groups against eggs in schools

Print edition : January 14, 2022

At a school in KalaburagI city on December 1, 2021, when the government began providing eggs and bananas in the noon meal scheme. Photo: ARUN KULKARNI

Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. Photo: PTI

At a protest march in Hubballi in support of the State government’s move to provide eggs in the noon meal scheme, on December 16, 2021. Photo: Kiran Bakale

The Karnataka government’s laudable move to improve nutrition levels of children by introducing eggs in the noon meal scheme in its schools meets with opposition from a section of Lingayat religious leaders, leaving the ruling BJP in a quandary.

In a bid to address the serious issue of low nutrition levels among children in Karnataka, especially in certain backward districts, the Department of Primary and Secondary Education issued a government order (G.O.) on November 24 stating that the government would provide boiled eggs or bananas to students from classes 1 to 8 in schools run or aided by it under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS). The move is expected to benefit children in the age group of 6-15 in seven districts.

The initiative, which is the result of a long-pending demand by parents and right-to-food activists, came into effect in the beginning of December and was implemented in the relatively backward north-eastern districts of Bidar, Raichur, Kalaburagi, Yadgir, Koppal, Ballari and Vijayapura.

According to the G.O., the scheme would cost the government close to Rs.40 crore and benefit some 14.44 lakh students. The eggs and bananas will be provided thrice a week or 12 days in a month until March 2022, when the nutrition levels of the students would be gauged to assess the scheme’s impact.

According to the latest edition of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5, 2019-20), malnutrition and anaemia among women and children in Karnataka were of serious concern and had actually worsened since NFHS-4, which was carried out in 2015-16. NFHS-5 also pointed out that in Karnataka, 35.4 per cent of children under five were stunted while 32.9 per cent were underweight.

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Health indicators of schoolgoing children have also worsened since the pandemic began, because many students belonging to economically backward homes did not get the midday meals as the schools were shut.

Opposition from religious bodies

On the face of it, one would have expected all sections of society to welcome the G.O. as it aims to increased nutrition levels among children and provides bananas to those who do not eat eggs because of faith, tradition or dietary choice. (Sources in the Department of Public Instruction (DIPR) said that the government may even replace bananas with high-protein vegetarian alternatives in the future as bananas do not contain the same quantity of protein as eggs.)

Also, according to a survey done by the DIPR in Kalaburagi division, around 80 per cent of the schoolchildren were keen on having eggs along with lunch.

Hence, it was baffling to see intense opposition to the move from a section of religious leaders, especially those from the powerful Lingayat community.

Channa Basavananda Swamiji, national president of the influential Lingayat Dharma Mahasabha (LDM), met Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai a few days after the order was issued and submitted a memorandum demanding that eggs should not be provided to children in schools. In its memorandum, the LDM said that it was “not opposed to those who eat eggs but opposed to the provision of eggs in schools”.

Justifying its advocacy of vegetarianism in public schools, the LDM quoted Basava, the 12th century founder of the Lingayat religious tradition, who said that “compassion towards all is the source of faith”.

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At a public protest in Bidar on November 30, Lingayat organisations such as the LDM, the Rashtriya Basava Dal and Akkanagalambika Mahila Gana Karyakartharu demanded that the State government roll back its decision. Speaking at the protest, Lingayat seer Mate Satyadevi said: “Consuming chicken’s eggs will have ill-effects on the well-being of a child. If the government is truly concerned about the issue of malnutrition among children, let it provide fruits, pulses and malt.”

On December 6, when Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai participated in a Lingayat religious event in Bhalki in Bidar district, a group of seers led by Basavalinga Pattadevaru urged the Chief Minister to withdraw the order. Several other seers have also strongly opposed the move.

Bhattaraka Charukeerthi Swami, head of a Jain matha, wrote a letter to Bommai, stating: “Some children are vegetarians by birth. Providing non-vegetarian food in government schools affects the harmony in schools.”

Support for move

However, not all Lingayats are opposed to the move. For instance, Panditaradhya Shivacharya Swami, the pontiff of the Hosadurga Sanehalli Mutt, said: “It is wrong to impose someone’s food practice on others. There is nothing wrong in providing boiled eggs to those children who want to eat it.”

Another prominent Lingayat body, the Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha (JLM), also came out in support of the move. S.M. Jamdar, JLM leader and former bureaucrat, said: “As per the G.O., vegetarian students will be provided bananas and non-vegetarian students will be provided eggs. There is nothing wrong in this and I want to make it clear that the JLM is not opposed to this.”

Decrying the opposition to eggs, a group of 17 organisations working on food security issues in Karnataka, who have come together under an umbrella coalition called Ahaara Namma Hakku-Karnataka (ANHK) (Our Food, Our Right-Karnataka), demanded that “eggs should be provided as part of the MDMS on all school days to all children in Karnataka who are used to consuming eggs”.

In an open letter to B.C. Nagesh, Minister of Primary and Secondary Education, ANHK said: “The aim of the Akshara Dasoha (MDMS) in Karnataka was both educational and nutritional—to increase school enrolment and attendance, decrease dropout rates, promote good health through nutritional foods and increasing learning ability of children. Several studies have provided evidence of the benefits of this programme. As per the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) and demands from civil society, nutritionists, doctors, advocates, parents, and children, eggs should be mandatory in mid-day meals owing to numerous nutritional benefits.”

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It added: “Karnataka has been the only south Indian State that has not provided eggs as part of MDMS in spite of the fact that 94 per cent [of the] students in government and aided schools belong to communities that eat eggs. According to NFHS-4 (2015-16), at least 83 per cent of the State’s population does not have any cultural or religious objection to consuming eggs.”

The letter also said: “The benefit of this investment in the health and nutrition of children far outweighs the costs. Karnataka would need an allocation of Rs.370 crore for three eggs a week and Rs.617 crore for five eggs a week for children from classes 1 to 10. This would be approximately 2.32 per cent of the total Education Department budget and just 0.05 per cent of the [State’s] GDP [gross domestic product]. There is no other measure remotely comparable in terms of the impact on the high levels of malnutrition amongst children in our State.”

Activists from the Kalyana Karnataka region (formerly Hyderabad-Karnataka), which includes the districts where eggs have been introduced, have lambasted the opponents of the move.

Kalaburagi-based Meenakshi Bali, a Kannada author and activist, said: “The people who are objecting to this move have not understood the true essence of the vachanas [a form of Kannada poetry written by Basava and his peers that constitutes the basis of the Lingayat tradition]. From my reading of the vachanas, I have not discerned any opposition to meat-eating. Malnutrition among children is very high in our region and only the poor sections, labourers and backward communities send their children to government schools. Often, the midday meal is the only full meal that these children eat. If the government backtracks on its decision to appease a few people, a majority of the State’s people will turn against this government.”

K. Neela, State Secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), who is also based in Kalaburagi, lashed out at those who were opposing the move. She said: “People who interfere in food habits of others are called fascists. To oppose this move when there is such severe malnutrition among children in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region is cruelty.”

Schoolchildren in the seven districts, who are the actual beneficiaries of the move, have also expressed their opinion on this issue. In a video that went viral on social media, Anjali, a Class 8 student of M.N.M. Government Girls School at Gangavathi in Koppal district, said: “We want to eat eggs. If you [seers] interfere in this, we will come and eat eggs in your mathas.”

Nutrition value

Dr Srinivas Kakkilaya, a Mangaluru-based physician, also condemned the opposition to the move. He said: “The move to provide eggs as part of the MDMS was mooted in 2007 during the tenure of Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. I remember that a survey was done at the time by the government where 50 lakh school-going children [out of 58 lakh] said that they would like eggs to be part of their MDM. While the State government was prepared to provide eggs, there were protests by seers like what we are witnessing now.”

He added: “Eggs are a very valuable source of protein and growing children require protein. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, schoolgoing children have been given eggs from a long time and the malnutrition levels among children there are the lowest in the country.”

Also read: Noon meal without egg

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, who has been part of the right-to-food campaign, said: “Given the serious nutritional crisis of children in the State and the long-term implications for children and the country in terms of health, quality of life, and education, it is shocking that there is so much opposition to eggs in MDM. Eggs are a nutrient-dense food. Although the opposition is in the name of religion, it is actually casteism, where vegetarianism is given a higher status in spite of no scientific validation. Nutrient-dense foods are being systematically denied to children in government schools, who are predominantly from the Schedule Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward communities.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in Karnataka, is heavily dependent on Lingayat voters in the northern and central parts of the State and is thus extremely sensitive to the demands of this dominant community. Bommai, who also belongs to the Lingayat community, has aggressively pushed the Hindutva agenda in Karnataka ever since his elevation to the top political post in the State in July 2021. Thus, it was not a surprise when B.C. Nagesh took cognisance of the protests against the inclusion of eggs in the MDMS and stated on December 13 that “the State government is exploring other options to provide protein-rich food to children as an alternative to eggs”.

However, Women and Child Development Minister Achar Halappa said that the “provision of eggs would not be stopped in schools”. Bommai himself has not made any statement on the issue, and as of now, eggs continue to be provided to be children in the seven districts.

It remains to be seen whether eggs will continue to stay on the menu or whether the government will succumb to the opposition by Lingayat seers.

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