The Government of Karnataka had issued a circular in October directing the local administration to include Eggs and Banana in the Mid-Day Meals provided in the schools of the seven backward districts of the state which reported rampant malnutrition amongst children – Bidar, Kalaburagi, Yadgir, Raichur, Koppal, Ballari (and Vijayanagara) and Vijayapura. Children who don’t consume eggs were provided the option of having Bananas.
The move that was overwhelmingly welcomed by teachers and parents cutting across religious and caste lines, was expected to improve attendance in schools apart from boosting the health of malnourished children in these districts. The Hindu has reported that an internal survey by the Additional Commissioner of Public Instruction (Kalaburagi Division) had found that around 80% of children had expressed willingness to have egg in the midday meal.
However, some Lingayat organizations including the Rashtriya Basava Dal had opposed the government’s decision and held a protest in Bidar on 30th November 2021. While some Lingayat organizations have opposed the move of the government, few organizations in Bidar, including the Republican Party of India (RPI), Dalita Vidyarthi Parishat, Ramabhai Bhajna Team, Janwadi Mahila Sanghatan, and Gonda Vidyarthi Sanghatane have submitted a memorandum to Bidar Deputy Commissioner on December 1 demanding that the government stays firm on its decision to offer eggs to school-going children.
On the other end, some leaders and seers within the Lingayat community too have welcomed the decision of the government. Former IAS Officer – turned – leader of the Jagatika Lingayata Mahasabha, SM Jamdaar has clarified that ” The Government has clearly stated in its order that vegetarians will be provided Bananas and meat-eaters will be provided Eggs. There is nothing wrong with it. Hence, JLM does not oppose the order of the government”.
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Speaking on the issue, Sri Panditaradhya Swamiji of Sanehalli Mutt has noted that” Everybody is free to make their own choice of food. There are both vegetarians and meat-eaters. One’s food habit must not be forced on anybody else. There is nothing wrong with the government providing eggs to kids who like it. Fruits can be provided to kids who do not eat eggs. This is clearly our stance on the issue” he has stated.
However, few civil society groups including Ahara Namma Hakku (Our food, Our right), Drug Action Forum, Karnataka, National Coalition on the Education Emergency, Stree Jagruti Samiti – Domestic Workers Rights Union, Jagrut Mahila Okkuta – Belagavi, and ActionAid Association have written an open letter to the Education minister of the state demanding have demanded that eggs should be provided as part of the mid-day meal scheme on all school days to all children in Karnataka, who are used to consuming eggs.
The letter is reproduced below and can be endorsed here:
Open letter to Education Minister, Government of Karnataka : Eggs in midday most welcome, but why only 3 eggs a week and only in 7 districts?
We, the members of different Civil Society Organisations welcome the decision of the state government to provide eggs for children in select districts of Karnataka, as part of Mid Day Meals to uphold the Right to Food of every child as enshrined in the National Food Security Act 2013. This is very much needed to reduce malnutrition and promote their health.
According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 5th round (2019), most children in Karnataka do not reach their ideal height and weight. Stunting (less height for age) of 35.4% and being underweight (less weight for age) of 32.9% are common in children even before they start their school life, and this is much more so in children from vulnerable communities.
We are concerned that these indicators would have worsened considerably due to the pandemic and lockdown.
Inclusion of eggs in the Mid-day Meal Scheme
The aim of the Akshara Dasoha (Mid-Day Meal scheme) in Karnataka was both educational and nutritional – to increase school enrolment and attendance, decrease dropout rates, promote good health through nutritional foods, and increase the learning ability of children. Several studies have provided evidence of the benefits of this program.
As per the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) and demands from civil society, nutritionists doctors, advocates, parents, children, etc., eggs should be mandatory in mid-day meals owing to its numerous nutritional benefits. Karnataka has been the ONLY South Indian state that has not provided eggs as part of MDM, in spite of the fact that 94% of students in the government and aided schools belonging to communities that consume eggs. According to the National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16), at least 83% of the state’s population does not have any cultural or religious objections to consuming eggs. States like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh with budgets comparable to Karnataka provide eggs 5 times a week.
The provision of the egg is important because it is a low-cost, easy to cook, culturally acceptable, and locally available alternative with a high Protein component with a biological value of 100 as compared to 60-70 for pulses (daal) and a good source of all vitamins except C. The possibility of adulteration is less and monitoring the stock supply is easier. Children who cannot consume eggs can be offered seasonal fruits, additional milk, or curd.
The benefit of this investment in the health and nutrition of children far outweighs the costs. Karnataka would need an allocation of Rs. 370 crores for providing three eggs a week and 617 crores for providing 5 eggs a week for children from classes one to ten. (5% administrative expense, 44 weeks of schooling a year @Rs 5/egg). This would be approximately 2.32% of the total education department budget and just 0.05% of the GDP. There is no other measure remotely comparable in terms of the impact that it can have on the high levels of malnutrition amongst children in our state.
We, the undersigned are extremely concerned about our children being denied basic nutrient-dense food over the last several years. Many nutritional deficiencies have long-term and often irreversible consequences. Malnutrition should be prevented not treated. Hence, there is no justification to leave out the other districts or to provide only 3 eggs a week.
In addition, we must remember that though levels of stunting and undernutrition have marginally improved in Karnataka, these are only the severe forms. (severe is less than -2 SD and very severe is less than -3 SD). We do not have clear estimates of moderate malnutrition (<-1 SD) and the focus of any government should be to address nutritional deficiencies before they go into the severe category and ideally prevent malnutrition in the first place. One of the factors that contribute to India’s low ranking of 101 out of 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index is the rate of child stunting. A properly planned school meal by a proactive government can go a long way in addressing/preventing a malnutrition crisis.
Eggs – the best option
The government is now pushing for mandatory fortification of rice with iron, folic acid, and B12 as a solution to address nutritional deficiencies and millets are also being pushed as a way to address malnutrition. Fortification will only increase costs, increase dependence on companies (premixes have to be flown or shipped in from other countries), reduce shelf life, and take away the food sovereignty of communities. Food fortification has little scientific basis or economic validity.
Millets and cereals belong to the same food group. While they can have a role in meeting the energy needs of the population, these are not nutrient-dense foods and cannot provide the required protein, vitamin, and mineral needs of the population, especially the most vulnerable. Millets and fortification are not the solutions to malnutrition – a diverse diet holds the key.
Considering that the rates of stunting and underweight in children under 5 are high as in Karnataka, the possibility of multiple nutritional deficiencies are also high. Because iron deficiency commonly measured, it doesn’t mean that replacing only iron will solve the nutritional problems. There is a need for multiple nutrients and good quality proteins. These can only come from nutrient dense and diverse foods such as dairy/milk, oils/fats, eggs, meat, fish and poultry, legumes/pulses, vegetables. Traditionally people are used to eating animal meats, poultry and fish and this has also supported local economy and prevented families from falling into dire poverty. The BJP governments in Goa and North East India are supporting the rights of communities that eat meat, to continue doing so. The BJP government in Karnataka should not let down our children, especially those from the weaker sections of society.
Encouraging community kitchen gardens, school-based kitchens and the addition of foods from different food groups especially the nutrient dense animal source foods is a first step.
The way forward
We demand that the government urgently take following measures:-
1. Eggs should be mandatorily provided daily to the children in all the 31 districts of Karnataka. The contract for the supply should be given to local self-help or women’s groups to support the livelihood of communities as well.
2. Milk or milk powder should be provided to school children under the Ksheera Bhagya scheme daily. This milk should be reconstituted at the school and provided fresh to the children. Under no circumstances should the milk be reconstituted and then transported as it happens with centralized kitchens.
3. Extra efforts have to be made to ensure that children in Tribal belts, Dalit children, children from OBC communities are not left out.
4. School-based kitchens should be set up in all schools. All centralized contracts should be canceled immediately.
5. The focus should move from cereals/millets and fortification to a more diverse and nutrient-dense diet.
6. To provide all the above said entitlements, the state as duty bearer must enhance the unit cost of the nutritional meal.
7. Health checkups to be organized for all school children in the state immediately through the health department / PHCs. Regular health tracking of children must be undertaken with the help of health department, along with the provision of deworming, iron tablets, etc.