Last year, a video went viral in India showing a schoolgirl, her hair in two neat plaits, fiercely defending her right and that of other children from poor families to be served an egg as part of her midday school meal. She is surrounded by fellow pupils who cheer and laugh as she calls on religious leaders in the Indian state of Karnataka to explain why they want children to be deprived of essential nutrition.

“You do not know the plight of the poor,” the girl told reporters, referring to the high priests and seers who argue that eggs violate the vegetarianism supposedly intrinsic to the practice of Hinduism. “We need eggs… who are you to tell us [what to eat]?”

In July, the howls of indignation from upper caste communities and even legislators notwithstanding, Karnataka’s department of education announced that it would provide eggs in all districts on 46 days of the 2022-23 school year.

Only half of India’s 28 states and eight union territories provide eggs as part of the midday meal scheme. And in those states that do provide eggs, the frequency ranges from daily to once a week to even once a month. These free school lunches feed well over 100 million of the poorest children in the country, ensuring they get at least one balanced, nutritious meal every day. The scheme began as an incentive for poor parents to send their children to school, if only to guarantee lunch, but is now a widely acknowledged bulwark against the persistent malnutrition that afflicts children in India.

Rates of stunting and severe stunting remain stubbornly high in India, despite decades of economic growth. The children most affected are those under five years old, but even among school-going children over 30% are underweight and undernourished.

Covid has exacerbated concerns, with government figures between 2020 and 2021 showing a sharp rise in the number of acutely malnourished children, even in prosperous states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat. According to this year’s Global Hunger Index, India ranks 107 out of 121 countries, faring worse than poorer neighbors such as Bangladesh.

Nutrient-rich eggs, packed with protein, would substantially improve India’s nutritional outcomes. In Karnataka, a study commissioned by the government showed that 13-year-old to 14-year-old girls who had access to eggs as part of a midday meal program gained 71% more weight than girls of the same age and socioeconomic background who did not get eggs.

Still, Karnataka’s apparently sensible decision to make eggs available to schoolchildren who wanted them met with disapproval in influential circles. Tejaswini Ananth Kumar, the vice president of Karnataka’s BJP chapter and widow of a former minister in the Narendra Modi government, tweeted that eggs were “not the only source of nutrition.” She added that the decision to serve eggs in school might be considered “exclusionary to many students who are vegetarians.”

The BJP is the political party in government at state-level in Karnataka and federally, with Modi arguably the most popular and powerful prime minister in decades. Its prevailing ideology is Hindutva, a Hindu supremacist movement that has disdain for India’s constitutional secularism, believing India ought to be a Hindu nation — in the same way that countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan are Islamic nations.

Karnataka is now one of very few BJP-ruled states that are offering eggs to schoolchildren. States such as Gujarat, where Modi comes from and where he was chief minister between 2001 and 2014 before becoming prime minister for the whole country, don’t offer eggs as part of school lunch even though large numbers of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.   

Sylvia Karpagam, a doctor and public health researcher based in Bangalore, Karnataka’s capital city, told me that the “myth about India being vegetarian is strongly pushed by those with an ideological agenda. It is far from the truth. And it is reinforced by the mostly dominant caste, English-speaking, Indian-origin diaspora in the West. It feeds the stereotype that India is a largely mystical, yoga-practicing, peace-loving country.” Karpagam, who has written extensively on India’s nutrition problems and its links to caste and class inequalities, noted that this dominant class influence “manifests itself in the kind of decisions about food that are being made in the country.”

A 2020 paper published by experts whose findings were intended to help shape India’s new national education policy claimed that “animal-based foods interfere with hormonal functions in humans.” Just a few lines before this conclusion, the authors noted that “[g]iven the small body frame of Indians, any extra energy provided through cholesterol by regular consumption of egg and meat leads to lifestyle disorders.”

Widely criticized on social media, the paper was deemed further proof of an unscientific, state-sanctioned effort to portray vegetarianism as somehow more Indian than the meat-eating commonly associated with lower caste Hindus and Muslims. In its ugliest manifestation, this endorsement of vegetarianism spills out of conference rooms and academic position papers and onto the streets in the form of lynchings of mostly Muslim cattle traders.

According to Human Rights Watch, between 2015 and 2018, 44 Indians, including 36 Muslims, have been killed by cow vigilantes. In another analysis, 97% of attacks by self-styled “gau rakshaks,” literally “the providers of protection and security to cows,” between 2010 and 2017 occurred since the ascension of Modi to power in Delhi. As recently as April 2022, there were reports of a man dying after he and two other men were severely beaten by vigilantes who suspected the men of slaughtering cows.

“There is a contempt for meat,” Sylvia Karpagam, the doctor from Bangalore, told me. “And for meat eaters who are viewed and projected as more violent, as sexually aggressive, lustful and criminal.” She stressed that these behavioral associations were linked to casteist notions of “purity and pollution.” Brahmins, she said, flaunted vegetarianism as pure and meat-eating as impure. “This idea is fed early to children,” she explained. “Meat-eaters often experience shame for their food choices and tend to hide what they eat in their homes.”

In recent years, this cultural shaming has been abetted and encouraged by the government. Four years ago, India’s health ministry tweeted an image explicitly associating extra weight and lack of health with the eating of meat and eggs. A backlash led to the ministry deleting the tweet, but the mindset, Karpagam insists, remains.

Vegetarianism and veganism have become increasingly popular in the West, where these dietary choices are seen as not just beneficial for health reasons but also for the environment. But, Karpagam argues, “the vegetarianism that is being pushed here, in our context, is top-down, caste and class-based. It is totally unscientific. For example, if a woman goes to a hospital with anemia, she will be given iron tablets and told to eat vegetables. But it is unlikely she will be told that liver and red meats are good for her. This is vegetarianism by erasure. The government is not endorsing vegetarianism for ethical reasons or scientific ones. In fact, our knowledge of healthy vegetarianism is also poor.”

According to Karpagam, “enforced vegetarianism” harms the poor. “When the poor eat a cereal-heavy and nutrient-deficient diet they are more likely to suffer from malnutrition. Children are more likely to have stunting and to be undernourished,” she said. Yet most national health surveys show that up to 70% of Indians are meat-eating, that for poor people food such as the meat from water buffaloes (classified as beef by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making India ironically one of the world’s largest exporters of beef alongside the likes of Brazil and Australia) are a major part of their diets.

Dipa Sinha, an economics professor at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, said that “if meat and eggs were incorporated into public food programs then obviously supplementary nutrition would be better and that could have an effect on our malnutrition crisis.” But, she conceded, “the resistance to such a move comes largely from the upper castes. Vegetarianism is an upper caste idea and it is the dominant castes that exert the most influence on public programs.” These programs mostly help those whose diets have traditionally included meat and eggs and who are ill-served by the growing distaste with which the government views people who do not follow vegetarian diets.

The Right to Food Campaign describes itself as an “informal network of organizations and individuals” who recognize that “everyone has a fundamental right to be free from hunger and undernutrition.” Swati Narayan, a scholar and activist who works with the Campaign, told me that while India “has achieved scale with the universalization of school meals, we’ve still not achieved nutrition, as is evident in the government data.” Eggs, she pointed out, “are nutrient dense, so why not achieve adequate nutrition by adding eggs to school meals?”

As inflation bites, poor people in India often go without, eating flatbread and pickles as a meal, or going without basic vegetables. In such circumstances, school midday meals are a lifeline.

It seems wholly unreasonable that a simple and inexpensive fix such as adding a single egg to free lunches for poverty-stricken children must meet such virulent cultural opposition that it falls upon straight-talking schoolgirls to show community leaders, priests and government ministers the error of their ways.