Delhi and Jharkhand: The Union government’s apex think tank NITI Aayog found the Modi government bungled its pilot projects designed to collect crucial scientific evidence on the impact of fortified rice on citizens’ health. It wrote a confidential report, which was never made public. 

The Collective is now revealing the findings of the report. 

Part 1 of the series (sidenote)revealed[Read part one here](/sidenote) how the Narendra Modi-led Union government ordered that 80 crore Indians be fed fortified rice despite high-ranking officials and public health experts calling for wider consultations to understand the adverse effects of feeding iron-laced rice on human health, particularly that of children, before rolling out the scheme. 

Once the orders to make fortified rice mandatory for all central government food security schemes had been passed, NITI Aayog decided to study how “prepared the ecosystem” was to ensure the supply of fortified rice and what “bottlenecks existed before the programme.”

But, what it found was damning. None of the pilot projects that NITI Aayog reviewed had carried out the basic, but most essential, surveys to map the existing levels of micronutrient deficiency in the district population before forcing them to consume the fortified rice for a year. In other words, the pilots were fundamentally flawed and incapable of assessing the safety and efficacy of fortified rice. 

It also found that the pilots were marred by patchy responses by states, botched quality control, lax scientific parameters, and shoddy supervision. The report reveals how Aayog’s officials found quality checks missing despite India’s food safety regulator listing fortified rice kernels – grains of rice laced with micronutrients – under its ‘high risk’ category. Food items categorised as high risk are to be inspected carefully and are dangerous for public health when not well-produced.

The report, marked confidential, did not matter much anyway. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grand announcement in August 2021 to universalise fortified rice and the government’s subsequent rollout of a programme in April 2022 following up on the Prime Minister’s announcement, the report’s findings on the failed pilot projects had no takers. 

The government has so far allocated over 137.74 lakh tonnes of fortified rice across all states. Part two of the series today reveals how government officials flagged shoddy implementation of the scheme eight months after the Prime Minister announced it.

Critical Deficiencies

Fortified rice grains are prepared by beating normal rice into a dough, and mixing them with powdered micronutrients, known as premix. This dough is then machine-carved into grains to resemble rice, known as fortified rice kernels (FRK). One such kernel is mixed with 100 normal rice grains and supplied through public distribution system.

NITI Aayog flagged major lacunae in each step of the process, beginning with the preparation of kernels, after visiting 7 of the 11 districts where the scheme is being implemented. On the ground, they found none of the districts had in place a process to regulate the quality of premix used so that there is no underdosing or overdosing of micronutrients, none checked the sample of fortified rice that reached schools, anganwadis (state-run daycare that caters to infants, pregnant women and lactating mothers) and public distribution shops for quality despite central guidelines saying so, and none set up project monitoring units to evaluate how the scheme was being implemented.

In the kitchens of Gujarat, they heard complaints that the fortified rice “looked different, took more time to boil and tasted insipid”, belying  the Centre’s claim  that fortified rice will have greater acceptance than an iron pill because it demands no lifestyle change.

The NITI Aayog report paints the picture that the Modi government’s major health policy intervention, affecting over half of India’s population, was a leap of blind faith. We break down the report’s findings, detailing what went wrong during the pilots.

No Surveys for Scientific Evaluation

When the intention of rolling out fortified rice is to tackle micronutrient deficiency, the government should know the extent of deficiency in its people. To find out, researchers have to first monitor the level of nutrition in the population by looking at markers that indicate deficiency. This is called baseline survey. They then have to supply iron-fortified rice to beneficiaries for 12-18 months to see if fortified rice is working its magic. NITI Aayog’s confidential report shows that in none of the districts its officials visited, the baseline survey, which was “needed for scientific impact evaluation”, was conducted.

A screengrab of the NITI Aayog report

In other words, the government did not know the anaemia levels of people before they were forced to eat fortified rice and therefore could not conclude if this artificial rice intake made any difference at the end of the pilot study. 

In the absence of baseline surveys, the report suggests conducting ‘concurrent evaluations’ – continuous real-time surveys. However, this new system of evaluation is yet to take off with only a little over a year left before universal scale-up.

As reported in Part one of the series, only eleven of the planned fifteen pilots took off under the scheme. Of these, only five completed at least a year by the time the scheme ended in March 2022. The results of the other six pilots would become available after the fortified rice has been forced upon all 80 crore people. If at all the pilots are continued.

Quality woes

The Union Food Department had scripted a lead role for the food safety regulator (FSSAI) when it drafted the scheme guidelines. FSSAI is the Union government’s apex authority to establish, review and ensure safety of food consumed by the citizens.

Though FSSAI was tasked with checking the quality along every step of manufacturing and supplying fortified rice, it sat on the sidelines.

“In all districts, FSSAI was reported to have almost no role, when it came to the fortified rice quality assurance and control. It’s not conducting any quality testing related to fortified rice or FRK in any of the districts,” the report said.

“FSSAI officials reported they have not received any guidelines or protocols in this regard. FSSAI is only involved in granting licences to rice mills and FRK manufacturing plants,” it said.

Result: quality control across the seven districts suffered. The most critical of these – quality checks of fortified rice samples collected from schools, anganwadi centres and fair price shops – was missing in all the districts.

A screengrab of the NITI Aayog report

The report also noted there are no processes in place to check the quality of the premix used in fortifying rice. FSSAI’s standard operating procedures for the artificial rice kernel manufacturers say that each batch of premix should be tested by an NABL-accredited laboratory. NABL, a board under the Commerce Ministry, was set up to accredit labs that conform to scientific assessment standards.

In India, there are only 20 such NABL-accredited labs. These labs together had “a total estimated testing capacity of approximately 2.6 lakh samples a year,” according to the report. By the time the scheme is universalised, in two years, the total testing capacity would have to reach 24 lakh samples a year. These labs were concentrated in just 10 states. This posed additional logistical constraints for remote districts.

For example, in Uttarakhand’s Udham Singh Nagar, which is one of the pilot project centres, samples are not tested for micronutrients at mills, warehouses or ration shops. Millers and district authorities rely on the self-certification by fortified rice kernel manufacturers. This is despite the fact that government’s guidelines specify tests of micronutrient analysis of fortified rice to be conducted by state officials once every three months.

In response to The Collective’s queries, the FSSAI said, “FSSAI has covered Fortified Rice Kernels under high-risk categories and mandated pre-license inspection for FRK manufacturing units, so as to ensure the unit is in compliance of FSS (Food Safety and Standards) Regulations.”

“Apart from this, surveillance and enforcement samples are being drawn to check the quality of FRK as per FSSR,” it added. This contradicts the findings of the confidential NITI Aayog report. The Aayog did not respond to detailed queries despite reminders.

“Plastic Rice” 

In some places, sceptical district-level officials responsible for implementing the pilot treated the fortified rice like unappetising food that gets pushed around the plate.

In Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirappalli (Trichy), the report noted, district officials “appear to not be fully convinced about the benefits of rice fortification, and are more keen on using modes of supplementation and diet diversification”.

At the grassroots, few knew anything about the purpose, benefits, storage, usage and consumption and shelf life of fortified rice. “Awareness among local officials, FPS (ration) dealers, ICDS (integrated child development schemes) and PM-Poshan functionaries, frontline workers, AWC (anganwadi) staff, local leaders, gram panchayat was found ranging from limited to no awareness”.

A screengrab of the NITI Aayog report

Besides, the alien stuff in the rice scared people. The Collective saw this during its visits to districts of Jharkhand where fortified rice was supplied.

When fortified rice first reached Pahar Toli, a small village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, in February 2022, villagers recoiled at the sight of rice that looked the part but didn’t taste or feel the same. They feared they were being fed plastic rice.

“We fell sick. My husband and I suffered from diarrhoea after eating the plastic rice. My gut health improved only after I stopped eating it,” Basi Munda, a 65-year-old farm worker, told The Collective. The Collective could not independently verify if the sickness Basi complained of was indeed caused by fortified rice.

“We tried to burn the plastic rice,” one local resident said. “We were trying to test if it would melt the way plastic does.”

Pahar Toli’s Gram Pradhan, Ban Singh Munda, sits beside sacks of fortified rice supplied to the village | Credits: Shreegireesh Jalihal

Somari Munda, a mother of two, told The Collective that they found the rice strange. “It wouldn’t cook the same way as regular rice and gets washed away when we drain the excess water after cooking rice.”

The report attributed these to lack of communication. 

“Commonly available fortified rice kernels tend to float while normal rice sinks,” the report said. “In Chandauli, Singrauli and Trichy beneficiaries threw away FRK while sieving or washing the fortified rice,” because it is a common kitchen knowledge that it is the chaff that floats.

“Unless beneficiaries are aware of this, they are likely to allow floating FRKs to get washed away/discarded.” The report says this renders the scheme “ineffective”.

The Collective, in its travels to Khunti’s Pahar Toli and East Singhbum’s Kuchiyasholi found that women were winnowing out the fortified kernels from normal rice at homes and in schools under mid-day meal schemes. This is in line with what NITI Aayog officials found during their field visits.

People also had to be told that shelf-life of fortified rice isn’t flexible and shouldn’t be aged like normal rice, a practice followed to improve texture, flavour and size.

The officials found “Information, Education and Communication” activities falling short of what the guidelines prescribed. This was despite the fact that the pilot scheme allocated Rs 2 lakh just for this purpose in each district.

And the crucial part: eyes were missing.  The Union Food and Public Distribution Department’s guidelines called for project monitoring units in every state and district, apart from one at the central level. But none of the seven districts the officials visited had set it up. And the Union Food ministry rejected The Collective’s RTI queries on the monitoring unit saying they didn’t have any such records.

(In the concluding part of the investigative series tomorrow: Lobbyists and fortified profits.)