HYDERABAD, Telangana — When the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) endorsed the Akshaya Patra Foundation’s refusal to serve onions and garlic in the mid-day meals it provides to schoolchildren, it didn’t include an important caveat: Dr Subba Rao M. Gavaravarapu, a deputy director at the institute, was a member of Akshaya Patra’s consultative council.
When HuffPost India asked Dr. Gavaravarapu about this connection, he said he had attended only one meeting, and “gave a bit of advice”. A day after the conversation, Akshaya Patra quietly removed Dr. Gavaravarapu’s name from the online version of the report.
“Dr. Subba Rao advised us to remove his name from the report because of the recent controversy around ‘onion and garlic’,” an Akshaya Patra spokesperson said in a statement. “He, however, continues to be on our consultative council.”
The controversy around the NIN report, and Dr. Gavaravarapu’s connection to Akshaya Patra, a closely-held privately-run religious outfit, reveals the outsized influence that a little-known state-funded institute has over the lives and diets of millions of Indians.
A perusal of NIN’s dietary recommendations over the years, and interviews with institute insiders, reveals a pronounced preference in favour of vegetarian sources of protein, as opposed to meat, fish and eggs — and an inherent class bias that determines what the children of India’s poorest citizens could, and should eat.
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This bias, the history of the NIN reveals, has many roots and offers an insight into the changing national conversation and the politics around vegetarianism: from post-independence notions of self-reliance and food security, to the current atmosphere of religiously-enforced vegetarianism, all refracted through the ever present prism of caste.
“A minority culture like vegetarianism permeates into nutrition policy as a combination of casteism and communalism,” said Balmurli Natrajan, Professor of Anthropology at William Patterson University, New Jersey who is currently a visiting fellow at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru. “This is about one section of the population imposing it tastes and world views on another section. Technically it is Brahminism.”
NIN, Dr. Natrajan said, “should stick to science and it should let us know objectively what kind of nutrition is good for our children and adults. Instead, if NIN says eggs, meat or even onion and garlic can be substituted it is not practising science. It is doing politics which is partisan.”
Today, this Brahmanical aversion to animal protein is adversely affecting the lives, and growth and development of hundreds of thousands of Indian school children. A recent report by the UN World Food Programme and the Indian Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation has estimated that one in three Indian children under five years of age are likely to stunted by 2022, due to malnutrition.
“It has been difficult to get committees to include adequate amounts of milk, egg, poultry and meat in the recommended diets,” rued a young scientist at the NIN. “While milk is still not a taboo subject in the institute, recommendations made in the past to include meat, including beef, did not make it even to the minutes of meetings.”
Let them eat sabzi
The controversy began when the Karnataka government asked the NIN to assess the mid-day meals provided by Akshaya Patra to over 400,000 school children in the state. To the surprise of nutritionists, including many at NIN, the institute endorsed Akshaya Patra’s menu — which contains neither onions, nor garlic, or any form of animal protein — without even physically testing their food.
The NIN’s motivations, critics say, are a consequence of the institute’s ingrained conservatism. Dr. Gavaravarapu’s presence on Akshaya Patra’s consultative council acquires significance as the NIN report claimed that “some of our scientists who visited their kitchens in Telangana and Karnataka have given convincing personal accounts about the high safety standards practised by the organisation.”
“The involvement of a high-ranking staff member of NIN, who is not even a nutrition scientist, raises suspicion that NIN’s enthusiastic recommendation in favour of Akshaya Patra’s menu is vitiated,” said Siddharth Joshi, an independent policy researcher, speaking of Dr. Gavaravarapu’s presence on Akshaya Patra’s counsultative council.
“NIN authorities had gone out of their way to give a clean chit to Akshaya Patra without either sampling the food or visiting the schools to talk to the children who are served this food,” added Joshi, who is a signatory to an open letter by doctors, researchers and activists asking NIN to withdraw its recommendations.
R Hemalatha, director of the Hyderabad-based NIN, pushed back at this characterisation of the institute. Any sense that the NIN pushed plant-based protein over animal protein was a “misconception”, her office said in an email.
Further, she said she did not see any conflict of interest between Dr. Gavaravarapu’s presence on the Akshay Patra’s consultative council and his role at NIN.
“My area of specialisation is nutrition communication. I have only been an advisor and probably attended one meeting on nutrition advocacy for them,” Dr. Gavaravarapu told HuffPost India. “Other than mid-day meals, they were interested in overall development of children. I gave a bit of an advice and attended only one meeting at the time. This year I have not attended any of their meetings.”
From Meat To Potatoes
The NIN was set up in 1918 in a one-room laboratory in Pasteur Institute in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu. Over the next 100 years, the institute set dietary guidelines for almost all sections of India’s population, from Railways catering services to mid-day meals for children in government-run schools.
Today, the institute also recommends what foods should be consumed to bring down Infant Mortality Rates and Maternal Mortality Rates, and its Recommended Dietary Allowances for various segments of the population influence the central government’s nutrition policies. The recommendations of the institute, which is under the ambit of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, also influence the National Nutrition Mission, or POSHAN Abhiyaan, launched in 2017.
In 1937, almost a decade after NIN was developed into a central institute named Nutrition Research Laboratories (NRL), the institute produced a landmark in Indian nutrition science, the Health Bulletin.
The Bulletin, drafted by scientist Dr. WB Aykroyd, recognised the importance of animal protein even as it noted the financial constraints in providing this for large populations. In 1944, the first diet prescribed by a subcommittee on nutritional requirements emphasised that “essential nutrition should be derived from non-cereal portion of diet” including milk, eggs, fish, fruit, nuts, curds and pulses, Veena Shatrugna, a former deputy director of NIN notes in her paper, The Career of Hunger: Critical Reflections on the History of Nutrition Science and Policy.
In the shortages that followed World War II, and in the difficult first decade of Indian independence, NIN’s scientists began advocating vegetarian sources of protein, Shatrugna notes.
A 1956 paper by NIN scientists PS Venkatachalam, SG Srikantia and C Gopalan on Treatment of Nutritional Oedema Syndrome (Kwashiorkor) with Vegetable Protein concluded that “the slight inferiority of vegetable proteins, should not obscure the fact that remarkable clinical improvement almost as striking as with skim milk was noticeable in cases treated with these diets (diets with vegetarian substitutes)”.
This, Shatrugna observes, “was the first major attempt to wean the nutritionists away from advocating milk for poor, sick undernourished children, and justifying inferior quality of foods, thus shrinking and redefining the range of foods for the children of poor in India”.
In 1968, NIN scientist Dr. C Gopalan, prescribed two separate balanced diets for vegetarians and non-vegetarians, stressing that “a judicious mix of vegetable foods like cereals and pulses can be cheap and… can provide nearly as good an amino acid pattern as that of the costly animal food”.
By 1978, a committee set up to revise Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) arrived at “balanced diets avoiding fruit, flesh foods, eggs, nuts and oilseeds, reducing milk intake, and eliminating a separate diet for non-vegetarians in the name of economy” or cost efficiency, wrote Shatrugna.
The 2011 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Indians, a nutrition-manual published by the NIN does not include meat in the sample meal plan for sedentary men and women — though a footnote at the bottom of each meal plan suggests that non-vegetarians can substitute a portion of pulses with meat, eggs, chicken or fish.
Read closely, the 2011 Dietary Guidelines appear torn between recommending animal protein, and extolling the virtues of vegetarian substitutes — which is odd, given that between 77% and 63% of Indians are not vegetarian according to a paper by Dr Natrajan, the anthropologist at William Patterson University, and political economist Suraj Jacob.
When HuffPost India contacted Shatrugna to comment further on her paper, she said, “I stand by the paper. It is a significant segment, albeit a small one, of NIN’s history”.
Proof Of The Pudding
For NIN’s critics, the institute’s endorsement of Akshaya Patra’s menu must be seen in the context of this history.
A hoary history of calorie-counting has meant that the institute’s recommendations are at odds with the rich cultural context of food in India.
“Its scientists count calories, add proteins and micro-nutrients to it and prescribe a diet,” said Dipa Sinha, a Delhi-based academic who has worked for many years with the Right to Food campaign.
“Nutrition is not just about what needs to be on the thali,” Sinha continued. “There are so many factors which are not related to nutrition science which contribute to what ultimately reaches the plate.”
In Karnataka, the concern raised by nutritionists and activists was not just about the calorific quantity of the food — but about something far more fundamental and visceral: Taste.
If eaten in sufficient quantities, vegetarian food cooked without onions or garlic might just satisfy the scientists with their diet charts, but if school children refuse to finish their food, it defeats the whole purpose of the meal.
Meanwhile, NIN which celebrated 100 years of leading nutrition research in India last year, is currently drafting an update of its Recommended Dietary Guidelines. A committee has already been constituted for this.