- Maneka Gandhi recently encouraged religious leaders to protest the serving of eggs to school children with a bizarre claim: that eggs are made of chicken’s menstrual blood.
- The claim is as wrong as it is bizarre – especially in its failure to appreciate the irony of wanting to withhold eggs but letting the gomutra flow freely.
- Many of the conditions in both ‘zero-grazing’ dairy and commercial poultry farms are also plainly inhumane.
- As B.R. Ambedkar decoded in his exposition on “beef-eating as the root of untouchability”, these unscientific food taboos are really sacred cows in disguise.
Recently, in Madhya Pradesh, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Maneka Gandhi encouraged religious leaders to protest the serving of eggs to school children with the bizarre claim that eggs are made of the menstrual blood of chicken. A few months ago, Lingayat, Hindu and Jain seers had also protested the Karnataka government’s decision to introduce allegedly “non-vegetarian” eggs in school menus.
In most parts of the world, breakfast typically starts with eggs. Since the 1990s, Indian sportspersons from cricketer Sachin Tendulkar to badminton champion Saina Nehwal, and even film actor Dharmendra, have encouraged children with a simple nutritional message: that eggs are essentially tasty multivitamin capsules.
Eggs, not gomutra
All healthy hens lay eggs. Mature hens can lay as many as 240 eggs per year. Only eggs fertilised by mating with roosters, followed by sufficient incubation, will grow into chicks. Hens also usually lay eggs without copulating with roosters. These are called sterile eggs and don’t contain animal flesh.
Poultry also do not menstruate.
Still, equating these chicken eggs with menstrual blood smacks of patriarchal prejudice and recalls the stigma of ‘uncleanliness’ associated with women’s natural reproductive cycles, which are essential for the procreation of the human species.
The prejudice against eggs is also particularly odd in an age when Hindutva gurus routinely encourage Indians to drink gomutra, or cow urine. Qualified doctors have advised against the unscientific application of cow urine, and dung for that matter, on skin to prevent COVID-19 infections.
Some of them have also considered the possibility that such practices may have exacerbated India’s mucormycosis outbreak after the second wave of COVID-19 infections.
Indian ‘vegetarian’ cuisine has historically included a wide range of dairy products from yoghurt to sweetmeats. The Maharashtrian delicacy called kharvas is in fact made only with a cow’s colostrum, or first milk produced during pregnancy.
Milk is also food that comes from animals – so why is it considered to be ‘vegetarian’ but not eggs? In his monogram The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism, M.K. Gandhi was unequivocal that “he who can take milk should have no objection to taking sterile eggs”.
Then again, as B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, perceptibly decoded in his exposition on “beef-eating as the root of untouchability”, these unscientific food taboos, nurtured through history, are sacred cows in disguise.
Thanks to Operation Flood in the 1960s – the Indian government’s dairy-development programme that led to the ‘white revolution’ – followed by the modernisation of dairy cooperatives, the country has become the world’s largest milk-producer.
But this hasn’t stopped the production of dairy products from being harmful to cows. Only lactating cows can produce milk, so milch cows often must give birth to at least one calf every year. In high-tech milk production facilities, cows are usually artificially inseminated, and when their yield declines, they are culled for beef.
Yet we don’t seem to have as much of a problem with milk as we do with eggs.
Large-scale government procurement contracts should raise the bar and ensure ethical standards to protect animal rights, at least as a first step.
More steps are possible too. During the COVID-19 lockdown, for example, tribal women in Maharashtra were trained in the methods of decentralised production, to rear only a few chicks at home to create a sustainable income, and to supply eggs to local anganwadi centres. The government should introduce more such schemes across the country.
Eggs also matter more than milk in the context of nutrition.
Specifically, child undernutrition in India is so acute that every third child is too short for their age, according to both the latest National Family Health Survey, 2019-2021, and the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2019.
Eggs are nutritional powerhouses that contain most of the required quantities of essential fats, proteins and vitamins ideal for malnourished children. Studies in Ecuador, Uganda, Malawi and Burkina Faso have also found that feeding infants eggs every day can mitigate child malnutrition.
But in India, religion and invocations of ‘culture’ have increasingly trumped science. The prejudice against eggs is intertwined with caste, communal and electoral politics. In 13 of the 18 BJP-ruled states, children are not offered eggs in all school or anganwadi meals. Eight of the 12 non-BJP states do serve eggs.1
The short story They Eat Meat! (2017) by Jharkhandi writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a powerful portrayal of such overt public imposition of dietary preferences – and their real character as deep-seated religious and communal prejudices that can quickly take a violent turn.
Swati Narayan is a faculty member at the School for Public Health and Human Development, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat.
These numbers account for the BJP’s new coalition government in Maharashtra.↩