In August 26, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, food processing industries minister, made an unprecedented request to PepsiCo Chairman Indra Nooyi when the latter met her to discuss ‘a wide range of topics concerning food processing sector.’
Referring to the malnutrition problem in India, particularly iron deficiencies in kids in rural areas, Kaur Badal requested Pepsi to “partner with India for further research and development in developing such food products that can be supplied as part of the mid-day meals in rural India”. It was feared all these years that the government has been trying to sneak in processed food products in its mid-day meal programme, but Kaur Badal has become the first high ranking Indian minister to articulate the nexus so openly.
The interest of the food processing industry, which gets liberal grants from the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, in the mid-day meal scheme is understandable as it sees the government’s nutrition-related programmes as a pot of gold. In the eleventh plan period, the government had planned to spend a staggering Rs51,000 crore on implementing the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) alone.
By colluding with willing politicians and bureaucracy, the food processing industry has been desperately trying to position its products as a panacea for malnutrition and, itself, as an alternative to government-run schemes. The first infamous attempt was made in 2008 when the biscuit lobby claimed government help to replace hot, cooked meals given to millions of children across India with processed, pre-cooked package in the form of biscuits and chocolates. The industry got as many as 29 Members of Parliament (many of them from Maharashtra where the biscuit industry is concentrated) to write letters to Minister for Human Resources Development Arjun Singh on the virtues of replacing cooked mid-day meals with biscuits. Thankfully Singh rejected the overtures. Biscuit makers then took up the matter with Women and Child Development Minister Renuka Chowdhury in whom they found a ready supporter. The Planning Commission, however, was quick to oppose the proposal.
In 2014, the processed food clause has resurfaced in NFSA in the garb of “Supplementary Nutrition (under Integrated Child Development Services scheme) Rules, 2013’, a draft of which has been circulated to state governments in July. The rules are camouflaged in nutrition jargon in a way as to enforce norms which are so stringent that they can be met only by factory-made processed food. It has been laid down that supplementary nutrition should be designed to “bridge the gap between the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) and the Average Daily Intake (ADI)”.
RDA and ADI are measured in terms of precise number of calories and amounts of micronutrients like iron and folic acid. For instance, for children in age group of 6 to 36 months the recommend standard is “take home ration in the form that is palatable to the child which shall be given in the form of micronutrient — fortified food or energy dense food or both”. For pregnant women and nursing mothers, too, the rules prescribe “take home ration in the form of micronutrient-fortified food or energy dense food or both”. Do such rules leave any doubt as to who are they going to benefit? Translated into layman’s language, these rules would mean a steady supply of packed baby foods, chips, chocolate bars, noodles, biscuits etc — all fortified with miniscule amounts of micronutrients to make them ‘healthy’- through anganwadis.
The government is all set to allow processed food companies to implement this marketing strategy all over the country, and with taxpayers’ money. This is not an exaggeration. A food company executive had explained the strategy in 2008 by saying “food can be converted into fun food like chips and Kurkure laced with the right proportion of protein and calories. Moreover, traditional food is being replaced by packaged food in urban India, so why not in rural areas”.
The revived bonhomie between the government and processed food industry is particularly alarming, in the context of growing criticism of India for failing to achieve targets set under the Millennium Development Goals. Two of these goals relate to reducing child mortality and improving maternal health. Besides focusing on vaccination for preventable diseases, improving nutritional status of children and lactating mothers could have helped us make significant progress in achieving these two targets. This has not happened despite resources being pumped into this area by ministries concerned under several schemes such as ICDS, which is the flagship programme to fight malnutrition. Recent reports show that results from this scheme are far from encouraging. Nearly 23 million below the age of six in India are estimated to be suffering from malnutrition and are underweight. This is despite the fact that about 80 million children attend anganwadis, where they are supposed to be provided supplementary nutrition. If all of them are getting necessary nutrition, then we should not have so many malnourished children.
The problems with nutrition delivery services through government schemes like ICDS and just what needs to be done to reform the system are well recognised and have been analysed by several expert committees. The real issue is how our politicians have responded to the problem since 2000 when we were supposed to have accelerated our efforts to address malnutrition. And this is the saddest part of the story. Constant attempts have been made to shift the focus of the nutrition programme from delivering freshly cooked meals to delivering packaged and factory-processed food products.
Instead of respecting and nurturing food and vegetable diversity and making it the basis for developing region and culture-specific nutrition guidelines, the government is rejecting the idea of cooked food altogether in favour of ‘one size fits all’ pre-cooked, processed and branded food. This is the real danger .
* The writer is a science journalist and author