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Scientific Evidence in the Face of Social Conservatism

Mid-day Meals in Karnataka

In the context of opposition to the introduction of eggs in the mid-day meals scheme in Karnataka, the article delves into how the nutritional policy in the state has been held hostage by dubious unscientifi c beliefs ascribed to by small but infl uential religious and caste-based groups.

In November 2021, the Karnataka gov­ernment announced the provision of eggs to children in Classes 1–8 in government-run and aided schools, as part of the Aks­hara Dasoha or the mid-day meal (MDM) programme (GoK 2021), in seven malnutrition affected districts of north-east Karnataka, also referred to as the Kalyan Karnataka region.1 Almost immediately, there was strong opposition to this move from religious leaders with threats of a statewide agitation if the move was not rolled back. Observers of Karnataka’s policymaking in nutrition have been unsurprised by this reaction since this was not the first occasion when religious figures weighed in on such policy decisions. This article attempts to examine how caste- and religion-based ideologies influence nutritional policy, specifically the MDM programme, as opposed to ­robust nutritional science and cultural choices of the primary beneficiaries of these programmes. It is important to look at what goes into the plates of children as part of the MDM programme and more importantly, what is kept out and why, especially if denial of these foods is contributing to the nutritional crisis in the state.

Onion and Garlic

In 2018, the chief executive officer of the Bengaluru urban zilla panchayat ref­used to sign a memorandum of understanding (Jayachandran 2018) with the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF),2 which has been contracted as a supplier of MDMs in several states, inclu­ding Karnataka, following concerns that the organisation was refusing to include onion and garlic in the food supplied to schools, thus violating the menu prescribed by the Karnataka government.

Onion and garlic are one of the most commonly used cooking ingredients for most of the communities in Karnataka, with the exception of some caste groups (Tarikere 2010). Along with a host of other spices and ingredients, these add to the flavour and taste of foods. Additionally, research conducted by the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysuru has found that the absorption from cooked food, of iron and zinc, two nutrients of high public health importance, is higher in the presence of onion and garlic (Gautam et al 2010). This assumes significance given that the bioavailability of iron and zinc from plant foods is usually very low. In India, the largest cause of iron deficiency is nutritional. The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2016–18 estimates that nearly one-fifth of preschool children (20.2%), 19.8% of school-age children and 46.8% of adolescents in Karnataka had zinc deficiency (MoHFW 2019).

According to the Karnataka State Food Commission, APF’s refusal to use onions and garlic in the MDM made the food “bland and monotonous (leading) to children refusing to eat the food” (Jaya­chandran 2018). This was confirmed by ground reports as well (Nathan 2019). In fact, a uniform menu for the MDM in Karnataka was prescribed precisely because of food-supplying non-governmental organisations (NGOs) imposing their own locally inappropriate food preferences on children, leading to low intake from children.3 Thus, the government- prescribed weekly menu included garlic as a spice and onion as an ingredient.

In addition, close to 96% of students studying in government-run and gover­nment-aided schools in Karnataka belong to Dalit, Adivasi, and Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities, which consume onion and garlic in their foods (Table 1, p 15).

When APF sought exemption from the inclusion of onion and garlic and proposed a different menu instead,4 the government asked for an opinion from the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad as well as CFTRI, Mysuru. While the CFTRI report5 stressed that the nutritional adequacy of the APF’s menu cannot be assessed without a field study, the NIN submitted a report6 endorsing the APF’s menu without even a token field study involving speaking to the schoolgoing children or an assessment of whether the menu was being implemented in practice or not (Henry 2019; Nathan 2019). The CFTRI proposal was ignored by the then government and an exemption granted to APF from the menu prescribed by his own government. This, despite scientific evidence and predominant cultural food preferences in favour of the inclusion of onions and garlic.

Eggs in Mid-day Meals

A journalist to students (circa 2003): Do you want eggs or bananas in school? Children: Both!7

The opposition to the November 2021 decision of the Karnataka government to provide eggs in government schools is not new. In January 2007, the H D Kumara­swamy-led Janata Dal (Secular) (JD[S]) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government had announced a similar initiative of providing eggs to a limited number of schools in some of the north Karnataka districts, but this was reportedly shelved because of objections from some Lingayat and Jain seers (Johnson 2007). A survey carried out in 2006 across all the government-run and aided schools in the state had revealed that out of 58 lakh enrolled children, around 50 lakh children (that is, over 86%) wanted eggs as part of the MDM (Kakkilaya 2013). But owing to the staunch opposition from religious heads whose cause was championed in the government by the coalition partner BJP, the proposal was put off till the next academic year and then quietly buried.

The November 2021 decision to introduce eggs in the seven districts of the north-eastern Karnataka region during December 2021–March 2022 has so far not been withdrawn des­pite the opposition. Notably, what is diff­erent this time is that the move to introduce eggs originates out of a BJP government led by a Lingayat chief minister. Additionally, the plan to introduce eggs was revealed publicly only after all preparatory arrangements have been made by the education department. An internal “survey” was carried out by the dep­artment in the seven districts to elicit the preference of the children studying in the schools covered under the programme (Hindu 2021a). Anticipating “politics” over the move, the schools coming under the seven districts were asked to seek permission from parents of children who had registered for eggs, and dates on which eggs were to be given were identified based on local cultural customs, avoiding those days when eggs were not consumed by the local communities (Edex Live 2021a). Finally, after putting in place all the required logistics, a circular was issued on 23 November 2021, announcing the decision to provide eggs in the seven districts.

The opposition was swift. On 30 Nov­ember 2021, the members of the Rashtriya Basava Dal, Lingayat Dharma Mahasabha, and Akkanagalambika Mahila Gana took out a rally in Bidar demanding withdrawal of the circular. Stigmatising the consumption of eggs, they argued that

eggs will have a bad impact on the minds of children. Giving eggs to one set of children and bananas to another set of children would amount to discrimination. Providing eggs to children who eat eggs would be disrespectful to  vegetarian children. (Prajavani 2021a)

A group of over 50 religious pontiffs from the Kalyan Karnataka region urged the chief minister to follow “raj dharma” and withdraw eggs from schools (Prajavani 2021b). These groups threatened to launch a march to the state assembly complex in Belgaum if the circular was not withdrawn. The leader of the All-­India Vegetarian Collective, which was spearheading the opposition, claimed that “there were no malnourished children in Kalyan Karnataka” (Kadesivalaya 2021a; Prajavani 2021c).8

This brings into relief the caste-dime­nsion of the opposition to the provision of eggs in MDMs in Karnataka. If one looks at the pattern of consumption of major sources of animal protein in the state, around 82.2% women and 89.6% men consume eggs at least once (Table 2, p 16). Similarly, either fish, chicken or meat is consumed by 71.6% women and 85.4% men at least once. Thus, in terms of food preferences, eggs are part of the meals of a majority of households and those who do not consume eggs at all are in a minority (17.8% women and 10.4% men), many of whom belong to upper castes.

According to the survey by the education department, in Gulbarga division, under which six of the seven districts fall, over 80% of children opted for eggs, and the rest opted for bananas (Hindu 2021b). Further, the November 2021 deci­sion to provide eggs to schools in the seven districts made even more sense in light of the nutritional indicators of these districts as revealed by a survey quoted by the education department: “the incidence of anaemia among school-going children ranged from 68% (Vija­yapura) to 74% (Yadgiri)” (GoK 2021). Additionally, the Kalyan Karnataka reg­ion is one of the most socio-economically and educationally backward regions of the state, with a large part of the working population comprising landless families who either work as agricultural ­labourers or migrate to other states ([Mum­bai] Maha­rashtra or [Hyderabad] Telangana) or to other districts of ­Karnataka.

During the protests, the religious heads stated triumphantly that they were successful in throttling similar attempts to introduce eggs in the schools by previous governments hinting that this time also it would be no different (Kadesivalaya 2021a; Prajavani 2021c). But, so far, the government has not withdrawn the circular, despite this concerted opposition. This can be attributed to two factors. First, the widespread support for the introduction of eggs, including those from some Lingayat groups. Second, the resp­onse to the introduction of eggs exp­re­ssed in terms of increase in attendance in sch­ools, the celebratory atmosphere in sch­ools after the introduction of eggs and the voices of the schoolchildren themselves.

On the same day, as the protests aga­inst inclusion of eggs were organised in Bidar, several Dalit and Bahujan organisations, including the Republican Party of India (Ambedkar) and Bahujan Vidyarthi Sangha held protests supporting the government’s move, arguing that the move should not be seen from narrow caste and religion lenses (Prajavani 2021d). A leader of the Bahujan Jagruti Vedike asked those religious pontiffs who were opposing eggs in schools to stop accepting donations from followers who eat eggs, hinting at the divergence between the food cultures of the religious leaders and their followers (Prajavani 2021e; Hindu 2021b). Various grassroots organisations held protests and submitted memorandums to the deputy commissioners of at least 15 districts across the state, including the seven districts where eggs had been introduced, asking for not only the continuation of the move, but expansion of provision of eggs to all the districts with five–six eggs being given per week (Kulkarni 2021).

At the same time, several Lingayat sch­olars and organisations sought to counter the essentialist narrative that all Lingayats are “vegetarians” or that Lingayat beliefs forbid consumption of eggs. S M Jamdar, a former government official and leader of Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha (JLM), the organisation which had spearheaded the movement dem­anding separate religion status for Lingayats, also came out in support of the move stating that

as per the G O, vegetarian students will be provided bananas and non-vegetarian students will be provided eggs. There is nothing wrong in this and I want to make it clear that the JLM is not opposed to this. (Sayeed 2022)

Moreover, his statement on the question of vegetarianism among Linga­yats was also pertinent:

The upper class among the Lingayats are vegetarians like Brahmins but this cannot be said with certainty about the lower classes. While some vachanakaras (creators of vachanas) had propounded vegetarianism, several vachanas by Basavanna and Alama Prabhu do not prohibit consumption of meat. (Politic 2021)

Other seers who had initially come out in opposition, later withdrew it saying that they had no problems with it if a vegetarian alternative was provided (New Indian Express 2021PTI 2021).

Furthermore, there was a strong res­ponse from students and parents in ­favour of eggs. Various ground reports stated how both students and parents welcomed the move, and even those who opted for having bananas instead of eggs, did not express any opposition to others being given eggs. The first day when eggs were distributed, a celebratory atmosphere was reported in the schools (Prajavani 2021f). Over the next few weeks, anecdotal evidence of increase in attendance on “egg days” emerged. The deputy director of public instructions, Gulbarga was quoted as saying: “After the provisioning of eggs and bananas, we have seen an increase of 10%–12% in the attendance in the government sch­ools” (Prajavani 2021g). The members of school development and management com­mittees (SDMCs) of the several sch­ools and the students of Classes 9 and 10 demanded extension of provisioning of eggs and bananas to high school as well (Kadesivalaya 2021b). The SDMC coordination forum, an umbrella body of several SDMCs in the state, also released a statement supporting the policy move (Prajavani 2021h). In a video9 that went viral and foregrounded the voices of the students, a schoolgirl from Gangavathi in Koppal passionately questioned the religious seers,

Do you feel it’s good if this is done to your children? We need eggs and bananas. If not, we will come to your mutt and eat eggs there. You want that? Not one, we will eat two. Who are you to tell? Haven’t we eaten eggs, taken a bath and prayed to you? Haven’t we donated to your mutt? In that case why do you eat with our money? Throw away that money. Or give us back that money, we will buy eggs with that.

It would appear that because of the combined effect of these factors, the pressure from certain religious quarters whose influence over the ruling government and its leaders is not insignificant, has been warded off for now. In fact, the education department submitted a proposal for the extension of provisioning of eggs and bananas to four more districts (Mahantesh 2022). However, it remains to be seen that with the elections around the corner in the state, a nutritionally, culturally, and democratically sound decision aimed at ameliorating malnutrition among schoolchildren may continue to remain hostage to beliefs of particular groups.


The controversy that surrounds the int­roduction of eggs in the MDM seems to indicate deeper fissures at play. While the standard narrative assumes the naivete of cultural practice, there is obviously a more devious design at play. ­Taboos around consumption of food in India have always been determined by caste (Sathyamala 2019). Extending this formulation, one should see the publicly funded MDM programme as the latest turf for reproduction of social hierarchy and dominance. Gopal Guru (2009: 10) has argued, “cooked food or food practices provide cultural criteria in assigning cultural identity to a certain social section in the society.” These food-based hierarchies construct a “savage identity” for those consuming meat, especially beef while vegetarian practices confer civilised identities on those located at the top of the caste hierarchy (Guru 2009: 14). Thus, by implication, food cultures of those communities who consume these tamasic foods are assigned “base” qualities. Food ends up becoming a “potential source of humiliation and violation of human rights, generating cultural hierarchies and subjective attitudes” (Guru 2009: 3). During the recent controversy, the reaction by some parents to withdraw their students from the schools marked this sensibility in many ways.

Balmurli Natarajan (2018) has warned against treating castes as innocuous cultural units since this ignores the element of hierarchy and dominance, and any attempt to uphold “our vegetarian culture” should not be seen as attempts to preserve “substantive” cultural differences of castes but as those enforcing hierarchical “relational” caste differences. In other words, it would appear then that the provision of non-egg alternatives for non-egg-eating children is not enough to ensure the continued normative dominance of a minority vegetarian food culture, unless the consumption of egg is completely eliminated or delegitimised in the public arena.

The refusal by APF to include onion and garlic in the MDM or the demand of certain religious groups for non-provision of eggs for everyone, even when it goes against the preferences of an overwhelming majority; when it is based on robust nutritional science and public guidelines; when it has the potential of reducing malnutrition among some of the most vulnerable groups; or when those who have divergent preferences are provided with alternatives, are then attempts at maintaining the supremacy of limited food practices that cannot be seen separately from the caste-based relational hierarchy of food cultures in India.


1 The seven districts include the six districts of the Gulbarga division, known as Kalyan Karnataka—Yadgiri, Kalburgi, Ballari, Koppala, Raichur and Bidar apart from Vijayapura district of Dharwad division.

2 Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) is a sister-organisation of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

3 A review document noted the following: “The NGOs which are involved in implementation of Mid-day Meals scheme across the state are supplying same kind of food every day to schools, using same kind of vegetables every day and instead of using food ingredients as per the local food customs, are preparing food following their own organisation’s food practises and supplying it to children. Because of this, not only are children not eating the food with enjoyment but monitoring institutions have also raised objections. Not only that, during visits to schools, the opinion sought from children also confirm this.” See letter of Education Department No. M6/Aa.Da/A.W.P.10/12-13, dated 28 December 2013 (https://aharanammahakkuh­

4 See, letter from the chairman, APF to chief secretary, GoK dated 28 December 2018 (

5 See letter from director, CSIR-CFTRI to the joint director (MDM), GoK dated 19 February 2019 (

6 See letter from director, National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad to the joint director (MDM), GoK dated 14 February 2019 Reference No D/NIN/MDM/2019/24 (

7 Interview with writer and journalist Shivasundar.

8 At the behest of these groups, some parents withdrew their children from the schools as a gesture of symbolic protest. See Edex Live (2021b).

9 See YouTube “Viral video: We will rush to the mutts and eat eggs there, Karnataka girl tells seers,”­v=­IW­Q89utuGDM.


Edex Live (2021a): “Government Schools in Seven Districts of Karnataka Begin Providing Eggs and Bananas to Students. Here’s How It’s Working,” 1 December,

 (2021b): “Eggs in Mid-day Meals: Parents in Karnataka Pull Kids from School Fearing ‘Bad Influence’,” 23 December,

Gautam, Smita, Kalpana Platel and Krishnapura Srinivasan (2010): “Higher Bioaccessibility of Iron and Zinc from Foodgrains in the Presence of Garlic and Onion,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Vol 58, No 14, pp 8426–29.

GoK (2021): “Circular, 23 November,” Department of Public Instructions, Government of Karnataka, no M1/MDM/Flexifund-Mo.Vitarane/2021-22.

Guru, Gopal (2009): “Food as a Metaphor for Cultural Hierarchies,” Center for the Advanced Study of India Working Paper, University of Pennsylvania.

Henry, Nikhila (2019): “Why Is the National Institute of Nutrition Okay with Akshaya Patra’s Veg Fascism?” Huffington Post, 2 July,

Hindu (2021a): “Egg in Midday Meal: ‘Won’t Let Karnataka Government Backtrack’,” 1 December,

— (2021b): “Forum Seeks Egg Diet in All State Schools’ Meal Scheme,” 10 December,

IIPS and ICF (2021): National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), India, 2019–20: Karnataka, Mumbai: IIPS.

Jayachandran, Nimeshika (2018): “Akshaya Patra Mid-day Meal Controversy: Will Food Commission Meeting Iron Out Issues?” News Minute, 19 December,

Johnson, T A (2007): “Politics in an Eggshell,” ­Indian Express, 24 February.

Kadesivalaya, Avinash (2021a): “Motte NiLasadiddare Brahmanru, Lingataru, Jainarige Pratyeka Sasyahaari Shale Tereyali; Dayananda Swami” (“If You Don’t Stop Eggs, Open Separate Schools for Brahmins, Lingayats, Jains: Dayananda Swami”), Vijay Karnataka, 14 December,

— (2021b): “Namgu Motte Kodalva Sir? High School MakkaLa Ee Bedike Motte Virodhigalige Keluvude?” (“Won’t You Give Eggs to Us Also, Sir? Do the Egg-opposers Hear This Demand from High School Children?”), 10 December,­minitv=true.

Kakkilaya, B Srinivas (2013): “Hosa MukhyamantrigaLalli HaLeya NivedanegaLu” (“Old Requests from the New Chief Minister”), Vijay Karnataka, 13 May.

Kulkarni, T (2021): “Government Urged to Provide Eggs in Midday Meals Across State,” Hindu, 25 November.

Mahantesh, G (2022): “Motte Vitaranege Hechchina Bembala; four Jillegalige Yojane Vistarisalu Prastava” (“Greater Support for Distribution of Eggs: Proposal for the Extension of the Scheme to Four Additional Districts”), VarthaBharati, 12 February,

MoHFW (2019): Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) Karnataka Report, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of ­India, UNICEF and the Population Council, New Delhi.

Nathan, A (2019): “Why Are Karnataka’s Schoolchildren Unhappy with the Mid-day Meal?” Hindu, 13 November,

Natrajan, Balmurali (2018): “Cultural Identity and Beef Festivals: Toward a ‘Multiculturalism against Caste’,” Contemporary South Asia, Vol 26, No 3, pp 287–304.

New Indian Express (2021): “‘Food Habits Are Individual’s Choice’: Pejavar Seer of Udupi Against Distribution of Eggs at Schools,” 9 December,

Politic (2021): “Ahaara Vayaktika Hakku: Shivananada Jamdaar, JLM Leader” (Food Is a Personal Choice: Shivananda Jamadar, JLM Lea­der), 13 December,

Prajavani (2021a): “Basava DaLa Karyakartara Prathibhatane” (Protest by Basava Dala Activists), 1 December,

 (2021b): “Motte Vitarane Adesha Vapasge Manavi” (Demand for Withdrawal of Egg Distribution), 7 December,

 (2021c): “20kke Motte Virodhi Suvaransaudha Chalo” (“March to Suvarana Soudha against Eggs on 20th),” 14 December,

— (2021d): “MoTTege Dharma, Jaatiya Lepana Salla” (“Don’t Colour Eggs with Religion, Caste),” 1 December,

 (2021e): “Motte Tinnuvavarinda mathagalu kanike sweekarisadiralu N Shivakumar agraha” (“N Shivakumar Demands That Mathas Refuse Donations from Those Who Consume Eggs”), 10 December,

— (2021f): “Motte Sevisi MakkaLu Sambhrama” (“Celebration Among Children After Eating Eggs”), 2 December.

 (2021g): “Hazaraati Hecchisida Motte, BaLehannu” (“Eggs, Bananas Have Increased Atte­ndance”), 8 December.

— (2021h): “Motte; Rajakiye Beda” (“Eggs: No Politics, Please!”), 17 December.

PTI (2021): “Remark on Providing Eggs in Schools Misreported: Udupi Pejawar Mutt Chief Swami Vishwa­prasanna Teertha,” New Indian Express, 18 December,

Saha, Pradip K (2020): “Skeletons Tumble Out of Akshaya Patra’s Kitchen Cabinet,” Morning Context, 25 November,

Sathyamala, Christina (2019): “Meat-eating in ­India: Whose Food, Whose Politics and Whose Rights?” Policy Futures in Education, Vol 17, No 7, pp 878–91.

Sayeed, Vikhar A (2022): “Vegetarian Extremism in Karnataka: Lingayat Groups Against Eggs in Schools,” Frontline, 14 January,

Tarikere, Rahamat (2010): “Food Et Cetera,” Seminar, No 612, August.


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Updated On : 4th Jun, 2022
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