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Intensified demand to scrap iron fortified rice distributed in India’s public food schemes

Reporters’ Collective’s 3-part Investigative Exposé highlights with additional evidence the red flags that ASHA and RTFC have raised on large scale ironfortified rice distribution in India’s public food schemes, say civil society platforms

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The Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) and the Right to Food Campaign (RTFC) who have been actively raising concerns on the many red flags related to large scale iron-fortified-rice distribution in India, stand vindicated with additional evidence emerging from Reporters’ Collective’s investigative stories - that too from official confidential and documents - More detailed information has now emerged on state-led cover ups, internal red flags from different government agencies, and corporate profit-government nexus behind the rice fortification program via an exposé by the Reporters Collective in a 3 part series.
Government of India, in a unilateral decision on a matter which Constitutionally is vested with state governments, has been supplying iron-fortified rice in public safety net programs like PDS, mid-day meals, and anganwadis reaching crores of Indians. These are mostly poor citizens who rely on state subsidized food and for whom iron fortified rice has become mandatory since they cannot afford to buy other (non-fortified) rice in the open market. The scaling up of this program came before a pilot scheme in 15 states was completed, or evaluated independently and rigorously. The evaluation of these pilots was due in late 2022 per an RTI response by the government.
Key concerns raised by ASHA and RTFC have been about the haste under which the programs were scaled up to national food programs despite no evaluations of the pilot schemes or evidence that fortified rice met its goals without risks, and the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach is being adopted even though ironfortified foods are contra-indicated for many medical conditions of lakhs of citizens. RTI replies to requests for evaluation reports of the pilots stated that evaluations were not done by state governments, yet the government proceeded to scale up. However, the confidential NITI Aayog report that has now come to light, and FSSAI’s own scientific panel on nutrition and fortification had also warned that evaluations and large-scale studies be conducted before any scaling up was to be undertaken. Moreover, the finance ministry too had called the program premature.
The exposé reveals that a confidential evaluation study conducted by the Government of India’s own think-tank Niti Aayog had been covered up and ignored, unsurprisingly because the bungled pilots do not indicate in any way that fortified rice distribution should be scaled up. None of the reviewed pilots had carried out basic surveys to map existing levels of micronutrient deficiency, or had quality control processes in place to prevent over-dosing, among other problems. Moreover, the expose reveals that states did not have an appetite for the pilots. An evaluation of a co-implemented pilot conducted by Tata Trusts (which also is involved in a commercial manner in iron fortification) in Gadchiroli district was so flawed that it tried to link consumption of iron fortified rice with reduced smoking and alcohol consumption and immunisation!
ASHA and RTFC had also conducted two fact finding visits in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh to investigate on-ground implementation of fortification programs, revealing that even those patients with haemoglobinopathies like Thalassemia and Sickle Cell Anemia (and other contra-indicated conditions), who have been cautioned not consume iron-fortified foods as per FSSAI’s own warnings, were being forced to consume iron rice, at risk to their health. The state governments did not seem to have a say on the matter and were being pushed into implementing these policies by the Union Government.
Earlier this year, ASHA had also published a report on the massive corporate influence on policy-making within the FSSAI, by companies who stood to profit from fortification policies in India. The conflict of interest is quite apparent, and the regulatory regime stands compromised. The Reporters’ Collective’s exposé has identified one of these MNCs, i.e. vitamin and premix manufacturer DSM (a Dutch corporate), which alone gained hundreds of crores of rupees. ASHA’s research reveals that the corporate nexus runs deeper than DSM alone and involved many other corporations and philanthropic entities who deliberately influenced policy for the adoption of mandatory policies on fortification because of the huge profit potential.
ASHA and RTFC once again call upon the Union Government to stop ironfortified rice distribution in the country immediately, given the numerous irregularities and anti-people aspects of iron-fortified rice distribution.
All material related to concerns with iron-fortified rice distribution available on:
Dietary Diversity or Synthetic Food Fortification? (community-holistic-nutrition.blogspot.com)

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