Saturday, January 21, 2012


Who ever has not listened to the "heart rendering" declaration by the venerable Prime Minister of India stating that child malnutrition and stunted growth of Indian children is a national shame? Probably every patriotic Indian must have hanged his or her head in shame at least for a "minute" after hearing the "confession" of the CEO of a country after being at the helm of affairs continuously for 7 years! An investigative journalist has now brought out the gory details of the alliance behind the fulminations of the PM. It appears that the so called charitable foundation which flashed this news was indeed backed by the muscle of food industry represented by a major bakery goods manufacturer and it is suspected that the intentions are not that honest as to be expected. Though there is nothing wrong in food industry supporting charitable activities beneficial to children, it is the impact created by such programs that will determine the quality of support extended. Here is a take on this issue on which probably the last word has not yet been spoken.

"Here is what I figured out. The report is a continuation of Naandi's malnutrition related past work for which it has had two worthy partners — India's leading biscuit maker Britannia and a high sounding outfit called Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). It is quite an intricate arrangement that links all these organisations — Britannia developed some biscuits to 'fight child malnutrition' with 'technical advice' from GAIN and partnered with Naandi to provide these biscuits to school children in Andhra Pradesh in collaboration with the state government. The success of this three or four-way partnership encouraged Britannia CEO Vinita Bali to set up Britannia Nutrition Foundation with the lofty goal of 'securing every child's right to growth and development through the right to nutrition'. New diva of nutrition? Britannia CEO Vinita Bali. For this contribution to fighting malnutrition through biscuits, cakes and breads her company makes, GAIN nominated her on its Board of Directors. GAIN website is, indeed, an eye opener. It describes Bali as a 'champion of malnutrition'. Going by the accolades showered on her I suppose it is high time the government considers shutting down its National Institute of Nutrition and other agencies and let Bali and her Nutrition Foundation take charge of India's nutrition programmes. After all, she appears to have the magic wand, or shall we say the magic cookie, to banish malnutrition from India. Britannia, according to GAIN, already reaches 176 million Indian children between 3 and 12. Britannia is not alone in the hall of fame. The list of GAIN's partners includes the who's who of the global food industry — Unilever, Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola, Mars, Kraftfood, Ajinomoto, Tetra Pack, Danone, Cargill and so on. Needless to say, they all share GAIN's philosophy of banishing malnutrition through biscuits and sugary syrups. The organisation is also one of the beneficiaries of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. GAIN has been partnering with the Indian government, particularly the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), our flagship scheme for child nutrition, bringing the 'experience' of its business partners to India. One is left wondering how keen all these convoluted alliances, partnerships and food industryled initiatives are to solve our hunger and malnutrition problems. Are factory-made, ready-to-eat products like fortified biscuits and cookies- manufactured by food giants and bought by governments at the expense of taxpayers' money — the only solution to India's malnourishment problem? Should we let food companies commercialise malnutrition? Is business in the garb of philanthropy or corporate responsibility a good idea for India's malnourished? Do we need to wait for the next report from the likes of Naandi on the solution to the problem which it has portrayed so colourfully in its just released report?"

There are industry baiters galore who suspect every action taken by the industry for some hidden agenda. Before one passes of the above comments by the critic as that of a perpetual "doubter", adequate efforts must be made to get to the real truth and this must be done by the government without further delay. Only help coming in the way with no strings attached and no hidden agenda behind the support must be accepted and the impact of such alliances with the government must be periodically assessed to defuse criticism of favoring one or the other support organizations. National Institute of Nutrition is a pioneering establishment and it must be associated with any survey or study on malnutrition and under nutrition in India.  

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