The Karnataka government, on 23 November, decided to introduce eggs in the mid-day meal scheme for malnourished school children in seven districts of Karnataka. While several parents and nutrition activists have welcomed the decision, the matter has snowballed into a massive controversy after it received opposition from seers of various mutts and Lingayat outfits.
As per the announcement, eggs will be provided to students in seven districts including Bidar, Raichur, Kalaburagi, Yadgir, Koppal, Ballari, and Vijayapura. For students who do not consume eggs, the government has decided to give bananas.
What is the controversy really about? Read on to find out.
Malnutrition Still a Malaise in Karnataka
Nearly 4.5 lakh children, which is about 11 percent of Karnataka's population of children, are malnourished, a report released by the state's women and child development department in May 2021 revealed.
Data from the state's department of public instruction suggests that 14.4 lakh children in the seven districts, where eggs are introduced, suffer from alarming malnourishment. It in these seven districts that the BJP government in Karnataka decided to roll out eggs. A total of 14.44 lakh students are likely to benefit from the scheme.
Why are Lingayat and Jain Seers Protesting the Move?
Channa Basavananda Swami of Lingayat Dharma Mahasabha, Sadguru Maate Satyadevi and several other Lingayat seers have demanded the withdrawal of the programme.
“Basic structure of schools is the uniformity where kids wear the same dress code, study the same syllabus. Then why discrimination in terms of food,” Lingayat mutt seer Channa Basavananda Swami, National President of Lingayat Dharma Mahasabha told The Indian Express.
In a letter to Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, Jain seers have also urged the state government to withdraw its decision, alleging that the move has disappointed the minority Jains who consume only vegetarian food, reports read.
Meanwhile, nutrition activists condemned the statements of religious leaders.
‘Children Need Nutrition-Rich Meal’: Activist
Speaking to The Quint, Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health expert said, “Children from classes I to V need to get 450 calories and 12 gm protein in every meal. Children from classes VI to VIII require 700 calories and 15-20 gm protein in every meal. At present, their needs are not met in terms of quantity or quality.”
The health expert says that eggs address the nutritional needs of children, including proteins, minerals, vitamins and fats. They are healthy, easy to cook, not prone to adulteration and can improve attendance in schools.
A proper, healthy meal is a legal right of any child under the National food security act, she added.
In 2013, the NK Patil commission revealed that the state has recorded high malnutrition levels among children and recommended introducing eggs in mid-day meals to tackle the problem.
Karpagam said that experts who claim non-vegetarian food is harmful for the body are spreading misconceptions.
“Rich vegetarians can afford nutritious alternatives to non-vegetarian food items, like paneer, dry fruits, butter, fruits but the food choices with the vegetarian poor fall short of nutrients. This is an important factor as children at government schools belong to extremely poor families,” she says.
What's the Replacement for Eggs?
Not just eggs, children could be provided poultry and meat in mid-day meals.
The decision to include at least eggs, came after several such attempts by the previous governments. The last such attempt was made in the academic year 2013-14, when hot milk was introduced as an addition to mid-day meals.
Both H D Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah had tried to include eggs in the mid-day meal programme during their respective tenures as Chief Ministers. In 2015 as well, the state government had made an attempt to introduce eggs in schools, but failed to do so after incessant opposition.
Can Karnataka Govt Afford to Withdraw the Decision?
Following criticism from seers of various mutts in Karnataka, the state government has decided to find an alternative to boiled eggs in mid-day meals. It is not clear what this alternative can be.
Meanwhile, Dr Karpagam said, “A policy cannot be made based on caste and religion. It should only be backed by evidence, studies, facts."