Madhya Pradesh’s egg-centric problem: Choose between nutrition and hegemony

The Kamal Nath government’s decision to provide eggs at Anganwadis gets the goat of Jain group in state with rampant malnourishment

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Wednesday 11 December 2019
Illustration: Vijayendra Pratap SIngh / CSE

A strange protest is shaping up in Madhya Pradesh (MP) over the Kamal Nath government’s recent decision to provide eggs under the supplementary food programme.

“We plan a postcard campaign to reach each and every school and tell students to not participate in the programme on the days eggs are distributed,” said Ashish Pokharna, who heads Jain Social Group in Ratlam district’s Jawra tehsil. The organisation has plans for similar drives across the state before meeting Nath during the upcoming assembly session to seek a rollback, said Hemant Jain, state chief.

“If he isn’t convinced, we will go to court,” Jain said. On the other hand, some 1.14 lakh people from 17 districts in MP signed a petition supporting the inclusion of egg and plan to submit it to Nath.

The controversy over eggs, not the first of its kind, started after the Nath government decided to provide at least three eggs a week starting April 2020 to every child at Anganwadi centres across MP — a state where half the children are malnourished.

Many, including those with knowledge of public health, welcomed the move; but a section came out in opposition, claiming such a move would be an assault on the culture of “vegetarian state”. Their protests were despite the government’s assurance of providing for alternatives for vegetarian children and mothers.

Malnutrition burden

MP has been reeling under a nutrition crisis, which has even led to deaths: More than 100 children died in Sheopur district alone in 2016.

The state tops the list for malnourishment under the age of six in India: 74.1 per cent of the children there were anaemic and 60 per cent malnourished, international non-profit Save The Children highlighted.

Around 42 per cent of the children under five in MP were underweight (low weight for age), 42 per cent stunted (low height for age) and 25.8 per cent were wasted (low weight for height), according to the fourth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), released 2016.

Malnutrition was higher among communities that depend more on public initiatives like Anganwadis and midday meals: 48.2 per cent children from scheduled tribes (STs) and 47.6 from scheduled castes (SCs) were stunted. Wasting and severe wasting among STs was 20 per cent above the state average, according to Vikas Samvad, a Bhopal based non-profit working on public health issues.

Why eggs

Public health experts widely agree over eggs as a source of quality protein.

“The medical fraternity considers eggs to be the gold standard for food optons containing protein. There should be no controversy about its nutrient content,” said Umesh Kapil, professor of public health nutrition at All India Institute of Medical Sciences New Delhi.

Whether a government should provide eggs or not in a public nutrition programme depends on whether it was ready to spend or not, he added.

Milk has often been pitched as an alternative. But milk can be diluted or adulterated. Veena Shatrughna, former deputy director at the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, cited the example of a school in Uttar Pradesh that was recently in news for reportedly diluting a litre of milk in 80 litre of water to serve students.

Dal (pulses) also contain protein but are deficient in amino acids and must be taken with rice or wheat for any benefit. Four parts of cereals need to be mixed with each part of pulses in a meal for its protein to be useful for muscles and other body parts such as red blood cells, plasma, skin, etc, Shatrughna said.

“Everyone knows the poor don’t get complete meals every time,” she added. Pulses also have quality-control issues.

Every egg laid by a hen has at least 6 grams proteins of high quality compared to cereals, pulses or even oilseeds, Yogesh Jain from Jan Swasthya Sahyog, an organisation working on public health in Chhattisgarh, said.

Egg protein is almost completely absorbed and assimilated, like protein in milk, fish and meat. Regular supplies are also feasible even in remote villages, he added.

Unlike pulses or milk, eggs cannot be adulterated, can be counted, preserved and transported, Shatrughna said.

While calorie deficit was a common problem, poor quantity and quality of proteins in our diets was equally important. Its absence spurs diseases, Jain said. 

The controversy

The demand for eggs has been decades-old, said Sachin Jain, a foods rights analyst with Vikas Samvad.

There have been all-round recommendations to increase egg intake. The EAT-Lancet Commission, which tries to develop quantitative target of health diets and sustainable food production, recommends eggs consumption of about 13 grams per person per day — that’s more than 90 eggs annually for an individual.

Some 13 states have already included eggs in their nutrition programmes. But in MP, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), which governed MP until last year, refused to provide eggs in the state citing its “vegetarian” culture.

The state, however, saw a sharp surge in the production of eggs in the BJP years — to 1.94 million pieces in 2018-19 from 0.97 million in 2013-14.

Not only Madhya Pradesh, but the whole country seems to have undergone a revolution in egg production and consumption. India produced 103.93 billion eggs in 2018-19. Only China (566 billion) and USA (109 billion) produced more.

Even in the beginning of the 21st century, the total egg production in India was 36.63 billion (2000-01), according to an article by Tarun Shridhar, former secretary, Union Ministry of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries. In 1950-51, the production was a mere 1.83 billion.

Shatrughna underscored the futility of looking for alternatives considering that a majority of the country’s population was not vegetarian: “One community cannot impose its culture on others.”

A State of the Nation survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) for some media organisation found that only 31 per cent of Indians are vegetarians. The figure was even lower — 21 per cent — for families in which all members were vegetarians. Another nine per cent of the population consumed eggs apart from vegetarian food.

Besides, the government was not forcing anyone to consume eggs and those who did not want it could skip them, Yogesh Jain said. But to demand that no one be provided eggs was unscientific, immoral and unsocial. It also showed a lack of interest in improving nutrition intakes among children, he added.

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