Meat, nutrition and the unpalatable politics of food

Meat, nutrition and the unpalatable politics of food

Karnataka is the last of the South Indian states to include eggs in midday meals

Children eat their mid-day meal at an Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centre, after its reopenin, in Gill Nagar, Choolaimedu, in Chennai. Credit: PTI Photo

When the Rajkot Municipal Corporation in Gujarat decided to ban the sale of meat within 100 metres of schools, public places and temples last month, Irfan Yunus Khan (name changed) had to come to terms with a sudden loss of his livelihood. 

For nearly 20 years, Yunus Khan sold egg dishes in Rajkot, earning about Rs 2,000 per day. His shop was frequented by regular city folk, students and office goers.

After the municipal directive, he was forced to sell his handcart and take up a job at a manufacturing company as a helper. Here, he earns Rs 300 per day. 

Rajkot was the first of four municipalities in Gujarat, including Vadodra, Bhavnagar and then Ahmedabad, that issued verbal directives to remove outlets that sold meat and eggs from the public eye, in November. 

The Gujarat state BJP president C R Patil clarified, “No such decision will be implemented as municipal corporations, which have sought to ban, have been informed to avoid taking such decisions.” However, the damage was done and betrayed the government’s inclination. Many who shut their stalls in November, Yunus Khan says, did not return to their livelihoods.  

For many political observers, the move isn’t surprising. In 2017, in the midst of a hectic election campaign, the then Chief Minister Vijay Rupani had proclaimed that Gujarat would be a ‘vegetarian’ state.

He made this announcement despite the fact that at least 40 per cent of the population of this coastal state, (including the politically numerous Koli community, traditionally engaged in fishing) consumes meat, according to the Sample Baseline Survey of 2014.

Soon after, the government passed the Gujarat Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, which allows for life imprisonment for the transportation, sale or storage of beef — the most stringent sentence of its kind in the country.

Earlier this year, in Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath banned the sale of meat in Mathura. Here, again, the ban came despite more than half of the state’s population consuming meat.

Also read: Yogi Adityanath bans sale of meat on birth anniversaries of 'great personalities'

In November, according to a statement by the NGO Sattvik Council of India, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation would serve only vegetarian food on some trains that travel to religious destinations, to promote ‘vegetarian-friendly’ travel.

Clifton D’ Rozario, national convenor of the All India Lawyer’s Association for Justice, says these incidents are a coordinated effort to dictate food choices in a country where over 70% of the population are meat-eaters, “We have reached a point where constitutional values, the legacy that our freedom fighters left, are being forgotten by the BJP government. What they are advancing is a Hindutva or Brahminical agenda,” he says.

D’ Rozario feels that the government has disregarded the constitutional right to food through these moves, “They are advancing an extremely jaundiced view. This only serves to trample on the majority, most of whom consume meat. It is a very small minority that is vegetarian. The ideology that they are advancing is very exclusionary,” he adds.

These decisions have the additional effect of attaching the virtue of ‘purity’ to vegetarian food and corruption or unhealthiness to meat and poultry products. In fact, in 2018, the Union Health Ministry drew flak for sharing a photo of an overweight woman whose diet contained meat, implying that it was unhealthy.  

Despite the government’s push for it, the notion that Indians are inclined towards vegetarianism is false, according to T Satyanath, a professor at Delhi University who researches food habits.

Stigmatising food habits

“Non-vegetarianism is only on the rise,” Satyanath says, pointing to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which shows that Indians consumed a whopping six million tonnes of meat in 2020, a 16.67 per cent rise compared to 2015.

R Mohanraj, the Karnataka state convenor of the Dalit Sangharsha Samithi (Bheem Vada) says it is the people from marginalised communities who face the heat of these decisions.

In February this year, Karnataka became one of 23 states in the country that have banned the consumption and sale of beef. “Christians, Muslims and people from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes all eat beef. There are community-level traditions that surround the consumption of beef. It not only infringes on individual rights but also on the rights of these communities,” he says.

Also read: The culture war against meat-eaters

Shwetha K(name changed), a resident of Bengaluru and a practicing Christian, says the beef ban in Karnataka has not only changed what goes onto the table but has also strengthened prejudices that religious minorities face on a regular basis. 

“Searching for a home to rent is so difficult for us already. The ban of beef has only further stigmatised our eating habits. It makes homeowners think that we are doing something illegal under our roof,” she says.

Food and malnutrition

Those who are engaged in the advancement of the vegetarian ideological narrative disregard that India has an unresolved malnutrition problem, despite the creation of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and midday meal programme. 

The latest National Family and Health Survey shows that 35.5 per cent of children below five years are stunted and 32.1 per cent are underweight. Its most alarming finding is that between 2016 to 2020, the number of anaemic children rose from 59 per cent to 67 per cent.

“The children are communicating that there is a persisting malnutrition problem. Over three generations, a population reaches its maximum height, based on its genetic potential. This is called secular increase in height. This has not happened (in the country), children have remained short,” said Dr Veena Shatrugna, former Deputy Director, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad. A study indicates that the average height of Indians has been on the decline. Men between the age of 15-20 saw a decline of 1.10 cm and that of women decreased by 0.42 cm between 1998 and 2015.  

To solve the nutrition crisis, educationists and nutritionists both favour the provision of eggs to children. When compared to dal, eggs are a better source of proteins and other vitamins (except vitamin C). They are also easy to source and distribute.

The inclusion of eggs in midday meals is an easy way to meet the nutritional needs of young children, who have access to cereal-heavy diets both at home and in schools. 

Yet, over half the states in the country do not allow the distribution of eggs to school children. 

Eggs in schools

In Madhya Pradesh, where half the population consumes meat, the battle to keep eggs out of schools is fierce. In 2018, the Kamal Nath government put forward a long-debated proposal to include eggs in midday meals. Then in the Opposition, BJP MLA Gopal Bharva claimed that feeding children eggs would result in them growing up to be “cannibals.” 

The proposed scheme was to be implemented by April 2020, by which time the Congress government was not in power. By August that year, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government had rolled back the decision to provide eggs in midday meals, electing to provide milk in its place.

Also read: Drop plan to to provide eggs to students, Jain seer urges Karnataka govt

“Eggs should be introduced,” says Sachin Jain, a member of the Right to Food Campaign, Bhopal, adding that its consumption can be choice-based.

“We have seen that in states like Tamil Nadu and Odisha there has been a positive impact,” he says. 

The pandemic has also raised several concerns that the nutritional requirements of children are not being met. Accounts from the grassroots suggest that the situation is far worse than estimated. 

Jaya, a mother of two children from Anekal in Karnataka, says that the family could scarcely afford to buy pulses, lentils or vegetables. 

“We would get rice from the public distribution system and sometimes ragi. Whatever little dal we had, we stretched it out,” she says. While she received ration kits from the school for a while, supply stopped six months ago. 

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a Public Health Specialist in Bengaluru, says that if such hardships continue, we might see the return of Vitamin-deficiency diseases, which had come under control in the past.

“We may see cases of night blindness, respiratory problems and keratomalacia because of deficiency in Vitamin A; rickets because of the deficiency of Calcium and lack of concentration, slow brain development because of anaemia,” she says. 

Karnataka’s case

The Karnataka government’s decision to provide eggs with midday meals in seven districts that have high malnutrition and anaemia levels —  in Bidar, Raichur, Kalaburagi, Yadgir, Koppal, Ballari and Vijayapura. 

Karnataka is the last of the South Indian states to include eggs in midday meals. Fearing the ire of religious outfits and food providers, the state had delayed the introduction of nutrient-dense food all these years. 

Even now, Lingayat and Jain seers have opposed the government’s decision and approached Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai to stop the distribution of eggs in schools.  

The headmistress of a government school in Anekal was appalled to see the state of children when they returned to school, “They had lost so much weight. It would help if the government would extend the programme to our schools as well. It would benefit the children,” she said. 

Also read: A pattern to Gujarat's 'ban' on meat display

MLA Halappa Achar, the Minister of Women and Child Development, Karnataka says that the Health Department is monitoring nutrition levels. “If there is a need in other districts, we will extend the programme,” he says. 

However, Dr Karpagam says there is no effort to pre-empt the problem. 

“We wait for the situation to get worse and then try to fix it in retrospect but child nutrition doesn’t work that way. The consequences can be long lasting and permanent,” she says. A group of doctors, nutritionists, lawyers, activists and citizens recently wrote to the Chief Minister to extend the programme to all government schools. 

The letter says, “What is a straightforward nutritional intervention for the children of the state is being embroiled in so much of ideological and economic jugglery, essentially denying a basic nutrient-dense food to lakhs of children over the last several years.”

The question now is whether the scheme will extend to the rest of the state, and how long that might take.

(Inputs from Satish Jha in Ahmedabad and Rakesh Dixit, Bhopal)