The recent ban of eggs in the midday meals to school children by Madhya Pradesh opens up questions on how as a society we solve some of the fundamental problems in India. Most of the decision making in the legislature, bureaucracy, activist groups, and media, is usually done by the elite of India, who are most often well off. And the challenges faced by the elite in India closely resemble the challenges experienced by the people living in the developed world. And in most cases, like in deciding the nature of food and diet for nutritional purposes, those challenges are exactly reversed between developed and underdeveloped countries, thereby putting the elite in India squarely incapable of solving the problems of the poor.
The challenge faced by a software engineer in India is ‘how do I combat obesity in my kid? How do I reduce his intake of candies and pastries’, while that faced by a laborer in India is ‘how do I get enough food for my kid? How do I get him milk, eggs instead of just rice, chili and onion every day?
Countries like United States are suffering from the problems of overconsumption. Nearly 35% of the population in U.S. including the kids is obese and overweight. Compare this to a country like India where 40% of the children suffer from malnutrition. Different countries, different problems!
The problems faced in developed world when it comes to the quality and quantity of food are quite unique and mostly very recent. For most part of human history, starvation has been the common theme for bulk of the population. Majority of the population in various cultures, sometimes nearly 95%, were peasants, subsisting on the produce left after paying the taxes. Starvation and malnutrition was the common and dominant theme. Only a very small section of the society such as the kings, the royalty, the feudal lords, could afford overconsumption.
But things changed a lot after Industrial Revolution, even for the common people. Not only did it mechanize the production of goods such as clothes and tools, it also mechanized agriculture, thereby increasing the efficiency to such a great extent that in countries like US or Japan only 2% of the population now participate in agriculture. Not only does the US produce for itself, it also exports food to other countries. The result of this Industrial Revolution is availability of highly nutritious food at extremely affordable prices. This accompanied by the massive consumerism has transformed societies in the developed world and created populations of consumers who have been indoctrinated through media and peer pressure to binge and overconsume. This has led to very recent and anomalous phenomenon of obesity, and related diseases. The challenge has now reversed for these countries, where they urge the populations to consume less. After a thorough introspection phase, the rich in the developed countries are moving towards low-fat and organic food, which is actually more expensive. Even the poorer sections in the developed countries are easily able to afford high-fat, high-cholesterol, and high-carbohydrate food.
In this respect, the rich and elite in developing countries like India find the challenges common with those of the developed countries. The elite in India are facing the problem of obesity and overconsumption now. However, the challenges of the poor in India are completely different and more in common with those of underdeveloped countries where availability of nutritious food itself is expensive and not easy.
Therefore, while addressing the concerns of the poor, the elite in India are ill-equipped to find solutions, because they tend to view the world differently. While the rich and elite in India can easily afford milk, eggs, meat, dairy products, and therefore may face the problem of overconsumption, the poor and the rural population in India cannot get the same easily. While the rich can get their balanced diet through variety of foods, the poor find that such a variety can be expensive. Such inability of the elite to understand the problem of the poor results in bad political decisions.
Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh says that ‘there are better, more nutritious options available. Milk and bananas will be served, but never eggs’.
Eggs are much better source of calories, protein, fats and vitamins compared to milk and bananas. Moreover, while milk can be diluted, and bananas can go bad, eggs come as a whole unit and can be preserved for a long time. Dipa Sinha, an economist at the Center for Equity Studies in New Delhi, says, “Wherever eggs are introduced (in schools), attendance goes up. It’s very popular, because children don't get it at home.” In another state that provides eggs in the midday meal, a Dalit Girl wrote: “Thank you very much. I got to eat an egg in my life for the first time."
This is not to dissuade the elite and the rich of India from attempting to solve the problems of the poor but to highlight the bare essential fact that the elite do not understand what the poor want and require in India. In the natural course of things, the elite would look at the world from their own perspective and would like to impose the solutions on the poor while responding to their own challenges -– case in point, the ban of eggs in midday meals in Madhya Pradesh.
If the elite and rich are sincere about solving the problems of the poor, they have to abandon their selfish worldview to espouse or embrace the perspective of the poor, and sympathize with their desires and needs.