#Thread: We @reporters_co are releasing the #ModifiedRice papers. These show how the Union government forced fortified rice upon 80 crore Indians. Despite failed pilots and internal red flags over health risks. Corporate interests played from the back.
To know more, stay with me.
Quick primer: What is fortified rice: Beat rice into dough. Add artificial micronutrients to it. Then machine-carve this to look real rice grains. One such artificial grain is mixed with 100 normal grains. Gov't is feeding this to the poor, purportedly to reduce anaemia.
It started in 2016. At Cancun, Mexico.
Dutch chemical giant Royal DSM sponsors a meeting of Global nonprofits. The agenda on the table: Scale up rice fortification in developing countries. For this, they decided, policy advocacy (meaning: influencing governments) is critical.
Two months later (coincidence?) these nonprofits make their way into the Indian government.
India's food regulator FSSAI set up a Food Fortification Resource Centre. Its objective: To promote fortification across India. It launched in partnership with these global nonprofits.
The nonprofits were invited to important closed door government policy meetings. They lobbied for food fortification with Indian lawmakers. They even 'helped' set standards for rice fortification. We found the government even copied verbatim from their 'toolkits' to create its own manuals.
By 2019, the plan to supply fortified rice across India took shape. The Centre launched a pilot scheme to test the efficacy of the rice. The pilots are to be completed by March 2022. 15 states consented. Each state began distributing fortified rice in one of its districts.
As government officials evaluating pilots would later note in a 'confidential' report, the rice lead to 'resistance' and 'protest'. It looks and cooks different. Rumours of 'plastic rice' spread.
(the report was never made public)
Think for a moment, how you'd feel if the food you ate everyday had changed overnight.
Without the choice to eat anything else.
For crores of poor Indians, this is now reality.
Records show, the pilots were met with lukewarm response from even the 15 states that had consented to run them. Only six of the 15 had actually begun supplying fortified rice under welfare schemes by project halftime. ONLY one of them submitted its results to the government.
This pilot, launched in Maharashtra's Gadchiroli, was conducted by the Tata Trusts. This study found haemoglobin levels of the population improved.
Wait, it also 'found' people who ate fortified rice were successful in curbing smoking habits. That is some science!
Quite incredibly, the study also found, alcoholism among Gadchiroli's mothers aged 19-49 shot up by 350% when they were not given fortified rice. Eating fortified rice led to a modest 21% increase of alcoholism in the same demography.
This study was good enough for the government!
Government cited it at the top of a list of findings it compiled as evidence for efficacy of fortified rice. Since only one of its planned 15 pilots managed to produce results, the rest of the list comprised of research papers from across the world.
Ironically, 2 of them explicitly said fortified rice is ineffective. Another one is co-authored by a researcher who has been publicly criticising the government's move to supply fortified rice under welfare schemes.
But there's something more interesting about the government list.
Over 90% of the papers listed are affiliated to the same nonprofits that sit inside FSSAI. Ones that lobbied for and planned the fortification scale-up to begin with.
One of the papers is actually affiliated to Royal DSM itself. No prizes for guessing what this paper concludes.
On 15 August 2021, Prime Minister Modi mounted the Red Fort and declared the government will supply only fortified rice under all its schemes by 2024. He said this with 8 months still left in the pilot scheme.
With 9 of the 15 pilots not even having taken off.
The Prime Minister had now set in stone the 2024 deadline. His orders had come despite Finance Ministry officials warning internally that a scale-up by 2024 was 'premature' without first studying the outcomes of the pilot projects.
Officials seeking administrative approvals cited the Prime Minister's speech in their notes.
Three days after the speech, the government decided to appoint one of the nonprofits -- US-based GAIN -- as its implementation partner for scaling up fortified rice.
The reason for choosing GAIN was a bizarre one -- the nonprofit was 'preferred' by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
GAIN, by the way, has links to DSM. A top DSM executive sits on its board and the committee advising the board as well.
Perhaps more importantly, GAIN is also funded by the government of Netherlands to 'work' on fortification in India. The Indian government was in on this fact. GAIN told the then FSSAI head about it over email.
Anyway, back to the scheme.
The universal scale-up was now underway. Worried about whether the logistics were in place to handle such a massive operation, the NITI Aayog decided to evaluate the pilot scheme. Eight months after Modi's announcement.
Its officials, in a 'confidential' report, found that the pilots were marred by shoddy implementation, lax quality control and botched scientific parameters. None of the districts the officials visited had conducted the basic surveys necessary to map the impact of fortified rice!
Meanwhile, experts began decrying the government's decision. They pointed out science had not given its thumbs up to fortified rice. @reporters_co's findings cemented their criticism. It showed how the govt's move to alter food served to poor citizens was a leap of blind faith.
Even in the evidence the government relied on internally, it had cherry-picked papers that present fortified rice in good light. It omitted a highly-respected global review of 17 studies on fortified rice. The review had concluded that there was little evidence of its efficacy.
@reporters_co also found, in tribal villages, that fortified rice had been served to citizens suffering from sickle-cell anaemia. Sufferers of sickle-cell and thalassemia are not to be fed iron-rich food. Iron-fortified rice is out of the question. It can worsen their health.
But if you're wondering why fortified rice would be served given the risks and patchy 'evidence', the answer may be in the genesis of the whole saga. The nonprofits. Their corporate backers.
Unsurprisingly, DSM's Indian firm has seen healthy growth coinciding with the scheme.
The MNC even set up a 3,600 tonnes capacity factory for producing Fortified Rice Kernels in Hyderabad in April 2023.
In an interview, a top DSM official thanked the PM for the decision to mandate supply of fortified rice in India's PDS.
DSM is now ready to rake in profits.