Eggs are a part of the free mid-day meal for students in primary and upper primary schools in a growing number of states. But in Madhya Pradesh, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan shot down a proposal in May to introduce eggs in anganwadis, local government-run health centres targeting children's health and nutrition.

According to media reports, he did this after representatives of the powerful Jain community, which accounts for less than one percent of the state’s population, opposed the move. This photo essay looks at a symbolic protest by residents of Shripura and Ganeshkheda, two predominantly tribal villages in Shivpuri district, Madhya Pradesh, against the state government’s decision.

Aanganwadi mein lao anda, Kuposhan ko maro danda.
Bring eggs to the anganwadi, and put an end to malnutrition.

The egg veto in Madhya Pradesh is a violation of children’s right to nutritious food. This is all the more appalling because Madhya Pradesh has one of the highest rates of child under-nutrition in the country. According to the Rapid Survey on Children for 2013-2014, the percentage of children in Madhya Pradesh who are stunted and underweight is 36 and 42 percent, respectively.

Anganwadi mein baanto anda.
Serve eggs in anganwadis.

To raise awareness of this very important issue, the Madhya Pradesh Right to Food Campaign joined local residents to organise an Anda Abhiyaan, a campaign to promote eggs, in Shripura and Ganeshkheda villages of Shivpuri district in the second week of July. Both villages have a large population of Sahariyas, who are considered to be a "particularly vulnerable tribal group" by the government, and live in extreme deprivation.

Kaun anda khaana chahata hai?
Who all want to eat eggs?

On being asked whether they wanted to eat eggs, there was a unanimous response from the children in both villages, in the form of raised hands, a contradiction to the health minister’s statement about Madhya Pradesh being a "vegetarian state". Among vegetarian parents whose children were present at the event, many said they did not have any issues with the event because they considered eggs to be vegetarian.

Children gather outside the Panchayat Bhavan,
where the Anda Abhiyaan event was held.

The excitement among the children was palpable as they gathered outside Panchayat Bhavan waiting for the eggs to be served. This was not surprising because most of these children rarely get to eat an egg. According to the third National Family Health Survey, only 16 percent of Indian children eat any animal protein on an average day. The corresponding figure for Sahariyas is bound to be much lower.

A mother with her child at the Anda Abhiyaan

The success of the campaign was visible in the large turnout of children and mothers at the event despite heavy rain. Many mothers said they were only able to give their children an egg once a month, usually on a special occasion.

Children wait for eggs to be served.

Though the state government has said it planned to serve milk and bananas as an alternative to eggs, these items are not comparable to eggs in terms of their nutritional value. A boiled egg has five times as much vitamin A, three times as much protein and nine times as much iron as 200 grams of milk. Being a good source of vitamin A, iron, protein, calcium and fat, eggs are ideal food for young children.

Finally, some egg!

Not only are eggs highly nutritious, they are also easier to manage logistically than milk. For instance, milk and fruit have a shorter shelf life, making them difficult to store in remote areas. Another advantage of eggs is that unlike lentils and milk, they cannot be diluted or adulterated.

Mother feeds her child at the Anda Abhiyaan event.

While vegetarian lobbies who are against serving eggs represent a small section of society, often consisting of people whose children do not go to government schools or anganwadis, a majority of households in Madhya Pradesh consume eggs. This is particularly true for tribal populations like the Sahariyas, who consume eggs but are too poor to afford them.

Children contribute money for the event.

The enthusiasm among people in both villages was evident in the small contributions made by children and mothers. While some contributed a rupee, others volunteered to boil the eggs and cook the khichdi.

This little one lost a slipper but seems focused on his egg.

It is imperative for governments to ensure that national nutrition programs are free of interference from narrow interest groups. There is an urgent need to address the high levels of under-nutrition in the country, and a good starting point would be to ensure that children are given the option of eating eggs, or a fruit, if they prefer that, as part of government-sponsored nutrition programs.

Text and photographs by Raghav Puri who is a student volunteer with the Right to Food campaign.