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Food grain merchants in Tamil Nadu are worried that the union government’s ambitious project of fortifying rice with iron to avert anemia among women and children will lead to loss of business for them. They say that only big mills can afford to invest in the equipment required to provide the fortification, leading to monopolies in procuring and supplying rice to the government.

While rice fortification is a welcome step in a country where anemia has been the biggest cause of disability in the past 10 years, small rice merchants fear that this move would indirectly implement the shelved farm laws that seek to corporatize foodgrain procurement and marketing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced on Independence Day a few months ago that all rice supplied through the Public Distribution System and midday meals should be fortified rice by 2024. An outlay is being prepared and the government is pushing the project. Iron fortification in salt has already been completed. Rice and oil are the next items that would undergo the iron fortification process.

Iron deficiency anemia has been the biggest cause of disability in the past 10 years. It contributed to 20% direct and 50% associated maternal deaths in India.

How is rice fortified with iron?

Food fortification refers to the addition of micronutrients to processed foods. Through this method, rice is to be fortified with iron, folic acid and Vitamin B 12, food scientists say. At the industrial level, it is available as Fortified Rice Kernels (FRK). Broken rice is ground into flour and micronutrients are added. This fortified dough is made into kernels using machinery and the FRK is mixed with regular rice at the ratio of 0.5 to 2%.

The micro nutrients could also be sprayed on to regular rice, which would add a coating of dietary iron in this case. But the extensive washing of rice before cooking, which is a regular custom in Indian households, will drain most of the micronutrients.

What is the need for fortification of food?

Anemia, the deficiency of hemoglobin in blood, is a major health problem in India. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the threshold hemoglobin (Hb) level for anemia as less than 120 g/l for women and 110 g/l for pregnant women aged 15 years and above. Anemia is a global public health problem and WHO estimates there are two billion anemic persons in the world. Anemia is responsible for one million deaths a year and about three-quarters of cases occur in Africa and Southeast Asia. India accounts for the highest prevalence of anemia in the world.

Rice distribution in a PDS shop. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says India produced 177.6 million metric tonnes of rice in 2019.

The NITI Aayog says the economic burden caused by anemia in India is equivalent to about 4% of GDP. Recent reports indicate a rise in anemia levels in 22 states among girls and boys of 16 to 18 years of age. Iron deficiency anemia has been the biggest cause of disability in the past 10 years. It contributed 20% direct and 50% associated maternal deaths in India.

As much as 65% of the country’s population consumes rice as a staple diet. The per capita rice consumption is 6.8 kilograms per month. There have been several studies that have proven that iron fortification in rice will help in reducing anemia among children.

According to the FSSAI norms, 1 kilogram of fortified rice is required to contain iron (28mg-42.5mg), folic acid (75-125 microgram) and Vitamin B-12 (0.75-1.25 microgram). And as per the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, every kilogram of regular rice needs to be mixed with 10 gram of fortified rice kernels.

Why are rice merchants worried?

Food fortification can lead to relatively rapid improvements in the micronutrient status of a population, and at a very reasonable cost, especially if advantage can be taken of existing technology and local distribution networks. So why does such a project scare food grain traders?

A load worker carries a huge bag of rice to be kept for storage in a godown. South India’s rice market alone is said to be as big as Rs 1 lakh crore.

Sai Subramaniam, Treasurer of Tamil Nadu Foodgrains Merchants Association Limited, says traders certainly need government help to set up plants making iron fortified rice. According to the Prime Minister’s August 15 announcement, 90 per cent of the cost will be borne by the union or state government. As of now, there is a plant in Tiruchengode and the project has begun on a pilot basis. “We are not sure how many food grain merchants can afford to deal with iron fortified rice if the establishment cost is very high,” he says.

It is unclear how much of the actual cost is in fact being subsidized by the central and state government in reality. As such, a prominent food grain merchant in Madurai, who is not willing to be identified, fears that the fortification project is an attempt of the central government to wipe out small players from the market.

Currently the mandate on fortified rice is limited to social welfare schemes. “But what if the government mandates that fortified rice should replace all regular rice in the future,” he asks. “Not many small players can afford it.”

Is it a back channel to implement farm laws?

The central government scrapped the controversial farm laws in November after farmers staged protests for 15 months. Yet, it is being speculated that the laws were withdrawn only keeping the upcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in mind. The scheme on iron fortified rice is thus seen in this background as an attempt to bring in the farm laws through the backdoor.

Sources say that even the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the farmers’ body affiliated to the RSS, has expressed apprehensions about the fortification of rice. They fear that corporates would take over rice mandis. Tamil Nadu State Secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh Veerasekaran from Trichy says that a value-added product like fortified rice will be costly for consumers and won’t benefit the farmers either.

Tamil Nadu State Secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh Veerasekaran from Trichy says that fortified rice will be costly for consumers and won’t benefit farmers either. It’s a gain only for bigger companies that can afford the technology, he says.

Such value addition to regular food grain will be a gain only for bigger companies that can afford the technology, he says.

India is the second largest rice producer in the world. FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations) data says the country produced 177.6 million metric tonnes of rice in 2019. Market analysis says the Indian rice market is projected to register a compound annual growth rate of 2.7% during 2021 – 26. As of now, ITC is a major corporate company dealing with rice. A 2018 news report announcing ITC’s entry into the packaged rice market said the south Indian rice market alone was as big as Rs 1 lakh crore.


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Read in : தமிழ்