July 18, 2008

Renuka’s Ministry Still Roots for Packaged Food

By Nitin Sethi

NEW DELHI: The HRD ministry has rejected the proposal. The Planning Commission is dead set against it. Nutritionists have decried the very idea and several state governments are less than keen. The PMO has objected to it and the Supreme Court has ordered against it.

But, despite the array of opposition from within and outside the government, the women and child development ministry has gone ahead and mooted a plan to feed ready-to-eat micronutrient fortified food to 8 crore poor children in the age group of 3-6 years under the Integrated Child Development Services scheme.

The ministry has forwarded a proposal to compulsorily give the powdered food every day to children under the supplementary nutrition programme of the proposed revamped ICDS scheme to the Expenditure Finance Committee for clearance.

TOI had earlier reported how the ready-to-eat meal lobby as well as the biscuit lobby had been working hard to penetrate both the ICDS scheme as well as the mid-day meal scheme which would provide access to a captive and massive market for their products.

The HRD ministry had rejected the industry moves citing not only Supreme Court orders but also advice from the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) against such fortified foods. It had pointed out that the human body needed least 20 known vitamins, minerals and other protective substances that could only be derived from fresh vegetables and fruits and not from added chemicals.

Besides, these fortification could not provide 300 known phytochemicals, anti-oxidants and flavonoids that fresh wholesome food provides.

The SC had earlier ordered that hot cooked meals should be provided to children under the food schemes, banning the entry of private contractors, which leads to large-scale corruption.

The WCD ministry though has been adamant on the count, challenging the SC order in an affidavit besides taking on

both the Planning Commission and the PMO on the issue. Curiously, till 2006, even the WCD ministry backed hot cooked meals, which nutritionists say is the best way to provide a wholesome diet including a host of micronutrients that fortification of prepackaged food can never achieve.

In a meeting with the Planning Commission in September 2006, the ministry had agreed that the way ahead was to ensure supply of hot cooked meals in accordance with local tastes and preferences and with variation in the food menu through the week. But it seems to have changed heart now and finds merit in feeding pre-packaged meals.

Despite the all-round support and agreement in favour of hot cooked food, the WCD ministry now wants to reinvent the cycle and start a 'pilot' project to assess the efficacy of such a menu. With the SC directives being implemented, all but nine states have already shifted to hot cooked meal schemes, the latest SC commissioner's report said.

The WCD ministry has, strangely, said that the government plans to stop providing subsidised foodgrain for the scheme - a proposal that had been rejected by a Group of Ministers headed by Pranab Mukherjee in the case of mid-day meals.

While the ministry has demanded a guaranteed amount for the controversial fortified pre-packaged foods, it has cut off food for adolescent girls which was mandated by the Supreme Court in its order as low birth weights are considered to cause irreparable harm.

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