By Sonia Faleiro
June 26, 2015
GANDHI famously denied himself food. And by
starving himself to protest British rule, he ultimately made India stronger.
But India’s leaders today are using food as a weapon, and they are sacrificing
not themselves, but others. Their decisions threaten to make India’s children —
already among the most undernourished in the world — weaker still.
Earlier this month, the chief minister of
the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, struck down
a proposed pilot project to introduce eggs in free government nursery schools
in districts populated by economically disadvantaged indigenous groups. The
proposal came from the state’s own officials, but was dismissed by Mr. Chouhan
on the grounds that eggs are a non-vegetarian food. Mr. Chouhan, like many Hindus,
is a vegetarian and avoids eggs because they may be fertilized and are seen as
a life force. While he has refused to address this incident publicly, his press
officer claimed there were “more nutritious options available.” But what,
In Madhya Pradesh, many of the poor
communities survive on government-subsidized grain and foraged plants.
According to the last National Family Health Survey, indigenous children were
the most malnourished of any community in the state. Even across the state, 52 percent
of children under 6 — the age up to which they may attend government nurseries
— are underweight, says the National Institute of Nutrition. Indeed Madhya
Pradesh, the economist Jean Drèze told me, “is far worse than even the Indian
average.” It is in the grip of a “nutritional emergency,” he said.
Child-rights activists had supported the
proposal, because eggs — a super food that is about 10 percent fat and
extremely high in protein — are the most nutritional way to improve the
children’s health, more so than a cup of milk or a banana, which the state
claims it will offer in place of eggs. Bananas spoil easily, and milk is often
laced in India with paint, detergent or shampoo, so much so that the federal
government is considering making milk adulteration punishable with life
Another staple food was taken from the
plates of the poor in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, after it banned
the possession and sale of beef. It is enforceable with a prison term of up to
five years. Hindus consider cows to be sacred, but Hindu nationalists,
emboldened by the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have lobbied
aggressively on the issue, not out of concern for the animals — which are
typically bone-thin and live on garbage — but to force their religious beliefs
on non-Hindus. The ban, implemented in March, was a body blow to the poor.
Beef, unlike mutton and chicken, is cheap. It is an important source of protein
for low-caste Dalits, and for minority communities like Muslims and Christians.
The decision by Devendra Fadnavis, chief
minister of Maharashtra, is appalling given the widespread poverty in his
state. It is also inhumane toward the very animals it claims to protect. The
Indian Express newspaper reports that farmers don’t know what to do with dying
cattle. Since they can neither sell nor butcher them, they are letting the
animals loose to fend for themselves. Surely, there is nothing sacred about
These decisions are not the first of their
kind. Over the years, at least 20 Indian states out of 29 have banned cow
slaughter (although Maharashtra’s laws are the harshest). And eggs are offered
in meal plans in only 10 states. But these decisions are startling in the face
of new reports reiterating that Indians urgently need more food — not less —
and of a higher nutritious standard than what they get now.
India has twice as many malnourished
children as sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank, and our children
are often shorter than those born in sub-Saharan Africa. According to UNICEF,
51 percent of children under 5 in rural India are stunted. Compare this with
neighbouring China, where the stunting rate for rural children is 12 percent.
And hunger isn’t just stunting our kids’ growth; it is also affecting their
Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party
tried to shift the blame for these poor decisions onto leaders of the Jain
faith — who did indeed lobby for the changes, and were involved in drafting the
beef ban legislation.
The Jains are strict vegetarians who do not
consume food that involves the injury or death of a living being. They won’t
eat meat or fish, and they also avoid eggs.
But even the most uncompromising Jain can’t
be blamed for the fact that the B.J.P. has denied eggs to children in all but
one state it runs.
Since hens will lay eggs even if they are
never anywhere near a rooster, it ought to be easy enough for egg farmers in
India to keep their...
Similarly, the beef ban has less to do with
the demands of one group than the party line. Last month, Amit Shah, the B.J.P.
president and a vegetarian, said, “Wherever there is a B.J.P. government, there
is a ban on beef.” (This is not quite the case as yet, but it is clearly the
direction the party is taking.)
The B.J.P. is determined to deny children
eggs even though every nursery currently offering the option also offers a
vegetarian alternative — such as a cup of milk or a piece of fruit. No child is
forced to eat food that contradicts his or her religious beliefs. But all
children will now be denied certain foods in order to adhere to the religion of
In India you are what you eat, and devotion
to strict vegetarianism is a trait common to many upper-caste Hindus. Some
wield their diet like a badge of their status. Others demand that people around
them — like children and household staff members — eat as they do to maintain
the purity of their kitchens. They will not visit restaurants that also serve
non-vegetarian food for fear of being polluted.
Privileged politicians are imposing their
will on underprivileged people, who do not share their beliefs and also do not
have the luxury of rejecting cheap sources of protein. By injecting religion
and caste into politics, the B.J.P. is preventing India from moving forward by
reinforcing the prejudices that have kept it back.
In a speech last September, Mr. Modi said,
“If the determination is strong, then I believe that youngsters and children of
this country have the strength and talent to move forward.” But many of our
children are not strong, precisely because politicians are depriving them of
basic nutrition. India is suffering a huge loss of human capital in the
process, and foolishly turning an enormous asset into a liability.
If Mr. Modi’s goal is to take India
forward, he must reassess his party’s priorities and stop allowing religion to
dictate policy. It’s a simple choice: The B.J.P. government can either feed our
children or undermine the country’s future.
Sonia Faleiro is the author of “Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World
of Bombay’s Dance Bars.”