Saving the Cows, Starving the Children

In Commentary

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 nonvegetarian 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, exactly?

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 superfood 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 imprisonment.

Another staple food was taken from the plates of the poor in the neighboring 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 starving cows.

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 neighboring 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 intelligence.

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.

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 others.

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 nonvegetarian 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.

First published in The New York Times.

Photo by Carol Mitchell

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Sonia Faleiro
Sonia Faleiro is the award-winning author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, named a Book of the Year by The Economist, The Guardian, the San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus, The Observer, CNN, Time Out, and The Sunday Times. It has been published worldwide and translated into languages including Hindi, French, Polish, Swedish, and Dutch. Sonia’s writing and photos have appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, The California Sunday Magazine, Smithsonian, and Granta. She divides her time between London and India.