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At the school level, maintaining the health of children through products like biscuits and chikki is quite straightforward, much more implementable than the current, patently absurd and unachievable model of cooked meals in each school. Photo courtesy: akshayapatra.org

Why is India reticent about using techno-industrial solutions to reduce malnutrition, asks Deepak Pental

The death of several children from consuming a toxic midday meal in Bihar evoked a great sense of outrage. But this outrage will, in all probability, soon die down. Yet, this tragedy, as many reports show, is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it lies unseen a story of poor service delivery and a lack of commitment. India has the dubious distinction of being the epicentre of both under-nutrition and malnutrition, including micronutrient deficiencies, beating even some impoverished sub-Saharan countries.

Forty two per cent of our children are malnourished. The economically poor sections of society, women and children in particular, are the most vulnerable.

Several reports have pointed out that well intentioned schemes in the hands of the petty bureaucracy and contractors do not serve the purpose of rooting out malnutrition. Why are we not seeking more innovative methods of service delivery? Why are we reticent about using techno-industrial solutions to deliver food of reasonable quality to our children? Who are the actors, and what are their compulsions in not even testing different strategies as pilot schemes to remove malnutrition?

Role of Social Activists & NGOs

The most significant contribution to the removal of malnutrition has been made by social activists and NGOs. From court litigation to the RTI to high-pitched advocacy, social activists have used every forum to influence government policy. For this, the country should be grateful. The ruling party, whether out of sensitivity or social pressure, has recognised their activism and accommodated them in bodies like the National Advisory Council.

However, these good Samaritans are off-track in their prescriptions for implementation. Their model of local action, schools and community kitchens, hot meals and local food is utopian and borne out of deep-seated ideological antagonism towards techno-industrial interventions. Perhaps they want to combine combating malnutrition with the break-up of feudal structures and create local-level social activism to achieve a more egalitarian India. The bitter reality is that their aversion to techno-industrial solutions is so high that they are willing to support action through a degenerated bureaucracy and small-time contractors at the cost of losing the cause.

Intervention by Politicians & Bureaucrats

What about the political class? Like social activists, politicians would also like to do good. The UPA government has steadily increased allocations for the midday meal scheme. The government has initiated a host of other schemes, including MGNREGA and more recently, the food security ordinance, for tackling the problems of poverty. But the political class has its own compulsions. Politics has become too patronage-based. To remain relevant, politicians have to win elections and they need men and materials to fight elections. Such resources can only come from monetary patronage and distributing patronage through contracts. Flagship schemes like the midday meals, started with good intentions, can degenerate into vehicles to distribute patronage. One example is the recruitment of a liquor baron to supply midday meals in Uttar Pradesh.

What about the role of the petty bureaucracy, India’s most pampered class? Their jobs are secure, and accountability is pathetically low. Bureaucrats do not have to fight elections and there are many opportunities to put one’s hand in the till. The legal system moves, but at an excruciatingly slow pace. Long pendencies have emboldened the corrupt to subvert the system. Unfortunately, the obsession of the political class with survival through patronage and the activist’s preference for action through a degenerated public system, rather than more efficient techno-industrial interventions, have led to a field day for bureaucrats and small-time contractors.

Promise of Fortified Foods

Fortified wheat biscuits from India were supplied to Afghanistan
 to feed two million school children under an initiative administered
 by the World food Program. Photo courtesy: WFP

The most efficient and effective method of combating malnutrition is through industrially produced fortified foods — baby food and biscuits or products like chikki. Manufactured food can be enriched with soy proteins and fortified with all the necessary micronutrients — iron, iodine, vitamins and minerals.

India is exporting around 3.5 million tonnes of soymeal annually, which is used as animal feed by rich countries, while our own children are fed low protein diets. The catch is, soymeal has to be industrially treated for human use, and this kind of techno-industrial solution is anathema to the ideologues. Manufactured products can be stored and do not turn into poison overnight. If such food reaches households and schools, in that order, malnutrition can be defeated in five years.

The most critical product is baby food. Research shows that the first 2,000 days are the most critical in the development of a child. Reaching small babies and their mothers is the hardest job and can only be carried out through appropriate products and making these available through the public distribution system. At the school level, maintaining the health of children through products like biscuits and chikki is quite straightforward, much more implementable than the current, patently absurd and unachievable model of cooked meals in each school. Remember, government-funded schools are unable to provide even clean drinking water and toilets to students.

Will we be able to implement product-based solutions to rein in malnutrition? Only if the political class develops some courage of conviction. Unfortunately, the political class has ceded the high moral ground to social activists of the neo-left and obscurantist right. The use of technology, whether in direct cash transfers or fortified foods, holds the key to alleviating destitution.

Years ago, I chanced upon a packet of fortified biscuits being manufactured in India as food aid to Afghanistan. Why can this product-based solution not be used for our own children? In the 1960s, a decision was made to solve India’s milk shortages through a techno-industrial solution in a mission called Operation Flood. The decision met with a lot of hostility from left-leaning intellectuals, but today we know it was the correct decision. Defeating malnutrition requires a similar approach. Agencies like Amul can be involved with the production of fortified foods. Indeed, it would be foolhardy to not involve the private sector, which has extensive experience with fortified foods.

Malnutrition is a scourge that needs to be tackled. In fighting hunger and malnutrition, what matters is achieving the goal. Every legitimate means, which includes product-based solutions, should be welcome. Is the political class listening?

(The writer teaches genetics, researches mustard breeding and is a former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi)

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