Open letter raises concern about ‘irrational attacks on food habits and nutrition rights of citizens’

A group of 112 like-minded citizens, including doctors, nutritionists, advocates, researchers apart from six organisations, have written an open letter raising concerns about the recent ‘irrational attacks on the food habits and nutrition rights of citizens’

May 07, 2022 02:08 pm | Updated 05:47 pm IST - Bengaluru

Eggs and bananas being served at a school in Kalaburagi on the first day of their inclusion in midday meal in Karnataka on December 1, 2021.

Eggs and bananas being served at a school in Kalaburagi on the first day of their inclusion in midday meal in Karnataka on December 1, 2021. | Photo Credit: ARUN KULKARNI

A group of 112 like-minded citizens, including doctors, nutritionists, advocates, researchers apart from six organisations, have written an open letter raising concerns about the recent ‘irrational attacks on the food habits and nutrition rights of citizens’. The group is planning to submit the letter to Union Ministries of Health and Family Welfare, Women and Child Welfare as well as the Prime Minister’s Office.

Asserting that various laws, bans and calls to boycott the sale and consumption of meat are affecting the nutrition and well-being of people, the group has said that research has shown that consuming animal source foods is an important means of addressing India’s glaring nutritional deficiencies.

“The current government at the Centre, its right-wing foot soldier brigade, complicit judiciary and police have gone on a spree of ousting all animal source foods other than dairy from the plate of the average Indian.  This can have far-reaching, often irreversible adverse outcomes,” the letter stated.

“Calls to ban meat shops are spreading across the country.  On April 1, 2022, a demand was made to close all meat shops for nine days during Navratri in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), with those refusing to comply being threatened that their shops would be bulldozed. There have been earlier instances of targeting meat shops in U.P., and also in other States such as Jharkhand and Karnataka, but the harassment has dramatically intensified in recent weeks,” the letter stated.

Cattle slaughter laws

“Stringent cattle slaughter bans in several States have turned a legitimate trade that sustained the livelihood of thousands into an illegal activity, making these groups vulnerable to police heavy-handedness, legal quagmires and economic destitution. Cattle slaughter bans have also adversely affected all those who depend on the cattle trade and dealt a debilitating blow to the livestock, leather and meat economy,” the letter stated.

Pointing out that the recent events in Karnataka have taken this harassment to new heights, the letter said: “It comes at a time when Muslims across Karnataka have been at the receiving end of various bans called for by right-wing groups, adding to the growing polarisation in the southern State under the BJP government.

“Since March 2022, there have been campaigns by a Hindu right-wing group in Karnataka against the purchase of halal meat, fuelling the already growing communal tensions in the State. The same group has demanded that non-Hindus should not be allowed to set up shops near temples that come under the Muzrai department. Residents of districts like Chikkamagaluru, Dakshina Kannada, and even Bengaluru, witnessed communally charged incidents as right-wing groups continue to impose restrictions on Muslim traders, adding to tensions in the State.”

Veena Shatruga, former scientist at the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, who is one among those who have endorsed the letter, said calls for bans and boycotts affect many communities that are already on the economic brink. “We were pushed to the wall to come out with this letter. Every day, the governments have been tightening their grip over certain communities, and have been targeting minority and Dalit communities. Most of the people engaged in the most menial of occupations within the livestock sector belong to the Dalit community, and have been direly hit by cattle slaughter bans,” she said.

Eggs and politics

“Although the politics around beef and even meat is well-known, eggs have been denied in midday meals and anganwadis in 14 out of 19 BJP majority States aside from a few other States. In many of these States (e.g. Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh), persistent demands for introducing eggs in midday meals have been vociferously resisted by privileged or upper caste vegetarian minorities. In Madhya Pradesh, their opposition did not even allow eggs to be served in three Adivasi-dominated districts on a pilot basis,” stated the letter.

“Recently, the government of Karnataka broke this jinx with a welcome albeit thoroughly inadequate decision (in November 2021) to introduce eggs in midday meals, a long-pending demand from children, parents, nutritionists, doctors and activists – but only in seven districts.  Objections have been raised by religious groups who had prevented a similar  attempt in 2015, their argument being that traditional eating practices should not be tampered with and that the imposition of eggs on vegetarian children, when there are vegetarian alternatives, is discriminatory. This argument is ridiculous on several counts,” the letter stated.

Sylvia Karpagam, public health doctor and researcher, who is part of the group, said there is an urgent need to counter the growing culture of intolerance towards peoples traditional eating practices. “We need to hold the government accountable for criminalising traditional foods. Pushing only cereals and millets is not good nutrition science,” she said.

Mumbai-based advocate Lara Jesani, who has also endorsed the letter, said this culture of interfering in people’s choice of food and livelihood may have serious social, economic and nutritional consequences if not countered. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made it all the more important to cater to the nutritional needs of people. The statistics on nutrition in India are abysmal,” she pointed out.

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