New Delhi: The country’s plans to tackle malnutrition by replacing wheat with fortified wheat flour in the public distribution system, or PDS, the mechanism used to distribute foodgrain, edible oil, and some other products to the poor, may come unstuck.
That is because two experts appointed by the Supreme Court have rejected the proposal, arguing that wheat flour, or atta, fortified with micronutrients will have a limited shelf life and it will not be financially viable to supply this through PDS.
The court-appointed commissioners, N.C. Saxena and Harsh Mander, did this in October 2007, but the development has just come to light. Saxena and Mander, both former bureaucrats, were appointed by the court in 2003 while hearing a public interest litigation on right to food filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a civil rights organization, in 2001.
In December 2006, the court appointed a panel, the Central Vigilance Committee, headed by Justice D.P. Wadhwa to suggest ways in which PDS could be reformed given what the Supreme Court saw as “large scale corruption.” The panel submitted its recommendations in October last year, making a case for fortified wheat that was subsequently rejected by the commissioners.
The recommendations as well as the opinion of the commissioners will be taken up by the court when it resumes hearing the case this month.
The use of fortified flour was one of the recommendations made by the panel. “Fortified atta would reduce instances of Vitamin A deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia,” the panel said. It added that “instructions may be given to sell only fortified atta, both under PDS as well as the open market, as this will make implementation easier and prevent diversion.”
The government’s stance is that the use of wheat flour could reduce inefficiencies in the distribution system. An official of the government’s Food Corporation of India said that it made sense to use “2-5 kg atta packets for the poor because diversion or leakages in atta will be much less” as the flour would spoil quickly. The official did not wish to be identified.
According to the latest National Family Health Survey, 45.9% of children who are three years old or younger, are underweight, 20% severely malnourished and 80%, anaemic. More than 6,000 children under the age of five die due to malnourishment or lack of basic micronutrients. Overall, India has more than one-third of the world’s undernourished children.
In discussions with the National Institute of Nutrition, or NIN, the two commissioners advised that the panel’s suggestion of fortified atta is riddled with numerous nutritional and practical problems.
“We have submitted a detailed report on why it won’t work. We are hopeful that we will be able to convince the court why it is not practicable,” said a senior official close to the development, who did not wish to be identified.
“An earlier attempt in the mid-1990s was made to distribute atta but in that process, wheat was procured by state agencies from FCI. And, FCI hired the services of various flour mills to get the atta milled and packaged to distribute to the poor,” said the FCI official.
The commissioners argued that unless vacuum packed, the flour, once exposed to air, would become rancid within a month. It might, therefore, not be feasible or cost effective to ensure the quality of the flour, the commissioners said.
“We already have an iron-supplement programme in India, which provides iron to pregnant and lactating women and children. More iron through this route could lead to iron toxicity without proper supervision,” said Veena Shatrugna, deputy director of NIN.
Saxena and Mander fear the shift to wheat flour could eliminate the small village miller. Since the wheat will have to be ground before being distributed through PDS, the business would tend to be concentrated with bigger millers.
Sangeeta Singh contributed to this story.