India, Religious Divides, and the Fight Against Hunger

India, Religious Divides, and the Fight Against Hunger
From foodtank.com, by Brianna Marshall

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly 195 million people in India are unable to afford one meal per day. As a result, malnutrition affects many, including more than half of the children in Madhya Pradesh, a state located in central India. Despite this pervasive problem, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan spoke out against the inclusion of eggs in the state’s Integrated Child Development Scheme, a program benefiting pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and children under the age of three. In June, Chief Minister Chouhan, a strict vegetarian, asserted, “The human body is meant to consume vegetarian food, which has everything the human body requires."

Critics challenging Chief Minister Chouhan’s decision cite the nutritional benefits of protein-rich eggs. With limited access to refrigeration and various other food preservation techniques, the freshness of food is a major concern for the people of Madhya Pradesh. But eggs can be distributed with limited risk of foodborne illness due to the built-in protection provided by a shell.

While vegetarian principles widely affect the predominantly Hindu India, many states have successfully implemented the inclusion of eggs into free meal programs. In addition to egg distribution for women, infants, and children, approximately 12 Indian states offer eggs as a part of free lunch programs for school-aged children. In many states, increased nutritional efforts have resulted in greater school attendance, an unintentional but important added benefit for impoverished communities.

Although Hindu adherents serve as the chief source of opposition to the distribution of eggs, most recipients of food programs do not personally subscribe to traditional concepts of Hinduism. The majority of individuals who rely on government food assistance are concentrated in tribal areas with their own regional beliefs and customs specific to low caste status. 

“The problem is that the upper-caste groups who are opposed to eggs in nutrition schemes are not the people who would ever need to avail of these schemes, but they are the ones who influence government policies based on their religious ideologies,” explains food activist Sachin Jain.

However, recent efforts in Jharkhand, an eastern Indian state, indicate that egg distribution may still be possible even in regions dominated by conservative Hindu leadership. Louis Marandi, Women and Child Development minister for Jharkhand, described the need for food freedom, particularly in underprivileged communities: “…there will be choice as per dietary preferences. Eggs are not being forced on anyone.”

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