Malnourished Indian children banned from eating eggs in political row over vegetarianism
Clutching battered metal plates, the children waited patiently in a remote Indian village for the two small flat pieces of bread and scoop of boiled potato curry that would be their only full meal that day.
They are among the 120 million malnourished children across India who depend on a government-run program serving lunch five days a week.
But despite the handouts, all 35 children gathered on the dirt floor of their preschool in Madkheda, a village in the state of Madhya Pradesh, showed signs of malnutrition - coarse hair lightened to a sandy brown for lack of nutrients, limbs stick thin, and bellies swollen from chronic hunger.
More than half the children in Madhya Pradesh state, with a population of nearly 77 million, are underweight and malnourished.
Last month it was suggested that eggs - a key source of protein - be added to the lunch programme.
But that idea was rejected by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the state's top elected official, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and a strict vegetarian. He suggested that milk and bananas be given to children instead.
"As long I am the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, eggs will not be introduced," Chouhan declared. "The human body is meant to consume vegetarian food, which has everything the human body requires."
The decision has outraged nutritionists who say politicians are using food to push a religious and political agenda at the expense of children's health. They accuse governments of pandering to a nationwide agenda led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to draw poor and tribal communities, with their mostly animist beliefs, toward the majority religion by forcing them to become vegetarian.
India has the highest number of vegetarians in the world owing to Hinduism's predominance, although not all Hindus are vegetarians and there are millions who eat meat.
"There is a deep political motive behind the decision to stop eggs. The government is forcing these people to become vegetarians and draw them closer to Hinduism," said Naresh Biswas, a food rights activist.