Sunday, May 31, 2015

Adulteration of food to cost dearly in Delhi? So says the local government!

Whether one is amused or impressed by the recent proposal by the Delhi government to enhance punishments for the crimes against citizens perpetrated by the food manufacturers and traders depends on how serious one takes the present government in the saddle there. Though this is an admirable proposal, ground reality says that taking action against these criminals in not that easy under the Indian constitution. Majority of the so called food inspectors have doubtful credentials and credibility vis-a-vis their character and integrity and an average citizen must be pardoned if he thinks that such stringent laws in the statute book can only increase the bribe amounts, making them richer much faster! Of course these are only apprehensions and the good intentions of the government may still get translated into much needed relief to the common man from these heinous criminals. One thing is sure that unless the number and frequency of sampling are increased manifold and the judicial system is strengthened, nothing much will come out of this exercise. Let us give some time for the government to work out the logistics before passing any judgment one way or the other.

  "In extreme cases where adulteration could lead to death, Delhi Government has proposed imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than ten years but which may extend up to imprisonment for life and also with fine which shall not be less than Rs 20 lakh," the government said in a statement. As per exiting rule, in such cases, imprisonment is not less than seven years but which may extend up to life imprisonment and fine which shall not be less than Rs 10 lakh. The government has also proposed to increase penalty from existing Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh for unhygienic or unsanitary processing or manufacturing of food. An official said it has also been decided that with the enhancement of penalty, the transparency aspect should be strengthened and the prosecution process should be made speedy and time-bound including by setting up of special courts, for which provision exists in the act. The official said that a person, involved in such adulteration which is not injurious to health, will have to face imprisonment for a term which may extend up to three years or with a fine which may extend to Rs 5 lakh or both. "Besides, where such adulterant is injurious to health, imprisonment will not be less than five years which may extend up to life imprisonment or with fine which may extend to Rs 10 lakh rupees, or both," the official said.  According to the government, penalty for misleading advertisement will be Rs 10 lakh or thrice the cost of the advertisement whichever is more.  "As per the proposal, for the purpose of adjudication under this Act, an officer not below the rank of Additional District Magistrate or Metropolitan Magistrate of the district where the alleged offence is committed, shall be notified by the State Government as the Adjudicating Officer for adjudication in the manner as may be prescribed by the central government," the government said.

Food dealers in this country are a wily lot capable of doing any thing including the "Houdini" act to delay justice or demolish cases through hook or crook making governments look foolish and powerless. While paying regular "haftha" to food inspectors for not checking their samples or giving good samples for testing purpose to boost the statistics or destroying the samples at the lab level or in the courts are routinely practiced. Using such harsh punishment threats, extortion also is possible to increase the "haftha" rate! One may ask why this pessimism on a good intentioned policy pronouncement by the government? Answer is simple. Indians are Indians and their attitude, behavior, respect for law, civic sense, moral responsibility etc are debatable with very few bothered about things beyond their immediate families! Only some genuine NGOs are fighting this food adulteration battle but they are far and few to make any dent on the scale of corruption and insensitivity prevalent among politicians and bureaucrats in this country.. Let us hope Delhi government will succeed where others have miserably failed the people of India.


Saturday, May 30, 2015

Lead and MSG in Noodles-An unnecessary controversy with suspect intentions

Does any body remembers a three decades old case of frenzied response from the consumers when some one reported in Pune that the hugely popular mango beverage in Tetrapack going under the brand name Fruiti contained dangerous pathogens which later proved to be a hoax perpetrated by the competitors and industry haters. Later it transpired that pathogens were injected into the market samples through an injection needle to implicate the Parle Agro, the manufacturer of these beverages and bring disrepute to the brand image of the product. Now comes another earth shaking news from the state of Uttar Pradesh which is known to be a chaotic administrative territory with serious law and order problems that an international food company is poisoning Indian people (or more precisely the hapless consumers in that state) through "adding" lead and MSG to the noodles marketed in that state! No one knows yet where lies the truth in this sordid episode though common sense tells us that a giant company like Nestle would not stoop to this illogical level. Whether this is vendetta by a few bureaucrats or industrial sabotage or a genuine slip up on the factory floor by the personnel involved must be investigated for taking severe action if the reports are true. Here is a take on this "attention seeking" report.    

"The state's Food Safety and Drug Administration (FDA) said excess levels of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) were also found in tests on two dozen packets. Maggi, the two-minute instant noodles, are hugely popular in India. Nestle India has denied that their noodles are unsafe or unhealthy. The company, a subsidiary of Swiss-based Nestle SA, said it had strict safety and quality controls in place. "We do not add MSG to Maggi Noodles, and glutamate, if present, may come from naturally occurring sources. We are surprised with the content supposedly found in the sample as we monitor the lead content regularly as a part of the regulatory requirements," it said. But FDA officials in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state, said all the packets they tested were contaminated. "Maggi instant noodles contained dangerous amounts of lead and MSG. We had to immediately issue orders against the company," news agency Reuters quoted DG Srivastava, deputy inspector general of the FDA in Lucknow, as saying. They said they found lead nearly seven times the permissible limit. MSG is commonly used as a flavour enhancer for Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and meat but experts say too much of it can cause headaches, chest pain and nausea. Consumed over a long period of time, it can damage the nervous system."

The explanation that traces of MSG could be present because of protein hydroysis sounds technically logical and unless there is a fool proof method to estimate added glutamate as different from the artifacts generated during the process, down right condemnation of the manufacturer is not justified. As for presence of lead in these samples, it must be carefully investigated regarding its origin if really present in "dangerous quantities" as being claimed. India is notorious for shirking its responsibility as a nation to provide clean water to its citizens in any part of the country and if there is roaring market for the so called mineral water (most of them spurious any how), governments at the state and central levels, FSSAI, BSI must be thanked for! If Nestle really released some consignments of noodles containing lead levels higher than that permitted by law, they need to be hauled up for negligence and given commensurate punishment. Will government of India take action against hundreds of municipalities in the country who supply  the so called "protected" water day in and day out to the hapless citizens containing toxic minerals and disease causing pathogens with impunity? While this Blogger is not holding any brief for a corporate entity like Nestle, there must be a balanced response to any such events depending on the severity and seriousness of the lapse. 


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Water export-A new concept of water logistics

Is India well advised to discourage food exports, especially fresh ones containing high moisture levels because of the claim recently made by a scientist that the water contained in these foods is irretrievably lost once for all. This is not considered a desirable situation especially for a country like India which is projected as a water stressed one facing massive shortage in the coming years. In the name of foreign exchange earning, are we exporting of foods without taking into consideration its impact on water dynamics. Can this be true? While the claim of water loss is true, whether it will have much impact on water supply is a highly debatable issue. After all export of a few million tons of food products cannot be a significant cause for water "drainage" out of the country considering that the country's water supply comes mostly from rains and Himalayan glaciers which again are influenced by cloud formation and other weather features. It is interesting to listen to the argument of irretrievable water loss through food exports though the concept put forward may not stand scientific scrutiny.   

"Have you heard of water export? Apparently, India has been sending "virtual" water to other countries through its food exports, and this trend is likely to continue. "Water used in agriculture is recirculated, but the (virtual) water exported out when we export food is not recoverable. Over a period of time, if food export is extensive, the country's water reserves go down affecting water sustainability," says Prashant Goswami, a researcher at the CSIR Fourth Paradigm Institute, Bengaluru. In answers send by email and given on the phone, Goswami, a Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar awardee, says that in contrast, China is a net importer of food and is therefore amplifying its water reserves. He suggests a change in India's food policy. Goswami, a climate and atmospheric modelling expert, warns in a study that if the current rate of net export of water in end products continues, India will lose its "entire available water in less than 1,000 years." This projection may go down further if parameters like increase in food demand and reduction in surface water due to climate change are taken into consideration, according to the study. The findings of the study 'Virtual water trade and time scales for loss of water sustainability: A comparative regional analysis' were published in the March 20 edition of Nature Scientific Reports. India, the US, and China are known to be the world's leading virtual water users and in the wake of growing consumption, such water trade plays a key role in the water sustainability of a nation, the study's author Goswami said. Goswami also said that for several decades, China has maintained a positive trade balance (more import than export) in virtual water trade and it is supplementing its water reserves".

The prediction that India will lose its entire water reserves in 1000 years cannot be taken at its face value because many experts believe that recycling of used water and conservation measures in India can solve the water crisis. Besides India has a long coastal line with access to Arabian sea and Indian Ocean and after all 97% of water on this planet is present in sea water. With solar distillation technology coming of age and reverse osmosis water desalination system, India can never be water stressed as long as it is able to find resources to invest in technology and infrastructure to augment its water needs from the sea and ocean around it.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Food Security Act-A "Tuglakian" venture?

India is a country of entitlements of different categories to various people and government is happy splurging public money to cater to these claimants whether they really deserve them or not. Latest addition to the entitlement landscape in the country is doling out almost free food grains to 67% of the population from the granaries of the government. The so called Food Security Act which confers on the designated population the "right" to receive practically free food grains like rice, wheat or coarse grains was hastily thought of by the previous government without much thought to the heavy burden put on future governments to harness sufficient resources to meet these commitments. Interestingly the government provided an escape clause in the Act if it is unable to procure adequate grains for supplying to almost 800 million people who were designated to receive the entitlement, though God knows what criteria were used to identify the beneficiaries. In lieu of supplying grains at the rate of 5 kg per person government intends to compensate the beneficiaries with cash transfer from the public exchequer at a certain calculated rate. Here is a gist of the scheme under which cash compensation is paid. 

"If a beneficiary under the National Food Security Act does not get his or her entitlement, then he/she would get an allowance of 1.25 times the difference between the government's Minimum Support Price (MSP) for that grain and the prescribed rate under the law. This is according to the recent rules framed by the Centre in this regard. The current MSP of wheat is Rs 1,450 a quintal and so, an individual beneficiary will get Rs 80.60 a month for not getting the entitled five kg. The allowance will have to deposited in the bank account or given to him. "Suppose a beneficiary has not received three kg of wheat in a month due to non-availability at the ration shop. The state government will have to ensure he or she gets the allowance as laid down in the rules," a senior official said. The Act, passed in the tenure of the earlier government, gives a legal entitlement for cheap grain to almost 67 per cent of the population. All entitled beneficiaries will get in a month as much as five kg of wheat, rice or coarse cereals at Rs 3 a kg for rice, Rs 2 a kg for wheat and Rs 1 a kg for coarse cereals. Once implemented, the Act is expected to cost the exchequer about Rs 130,000 crore a year. Around 11 states and union territories have implemented the Act and others are in the process of doing so. The Centre has extended the deadline several times. The Centre has said a nodal officer will have to verify at the end of each month the amount of grain available in the ration shops, the status of supply to entitled beneficiaries and the reason why grain could not be supplied. "The food security allowance in lieu of grains will have to given to the beneficiary by the end of the third week of the month for which grains could not be supplied to him." However, a beneficiary will be eligible for the allowance only if he visits the ration to claim the entitlement."

It is a tragedy that under the so called food security program, the right to receive heavily subsidized cereals is conferred only to some while other citizens are deprived of the same. Is it not a type of discrimination where some are given the benefits while others are denied it? Legally is it tenable? It is another matter that many citizens would voluntarily give up this right because of their conscience not to put unnecessary burden on the exchequer and avoid wasting public money. It is possible that most of the people who receive these grains have the wherewithal to pay for the grains at rates used to be charges under the earlier Public Distribution System. With the MNREGA scheme guaranteeing job for 150 days at the rate of Rs 150 per day there may be very little justification to provide grains at throw away prices. If the nation is serious in providing succor to really poor people, the government must create a data base identifying such people through scientific surveys. Probably there might not me more than 10-15% of the population in the country who deserve such helping hand from the government in providing basic foods at affordable prices. .It is nothing but suicidal for the present day government to commit precious resources of such a magnitude, estimated at almost Rs 130 billion every year which could have been better invested on the creaking infrastructure in the country!


Indian diet changing for the worse? New findings

Recent findings that the nutrient intake among Indian population is steadily changing for the worse are some what strange considering that the economic health of the nation is considered healthy with higher income and lower inflation prevalent during the last few years. A deeper look at the figures based on which these conclusions have been drawn will tell a different story. Generally average figures do not reflect the ground reality and if these figures are true, it means there are many, mostly poor, who do not consume even the average level nutrition because higher income people consume far higher amount of foods getting much more than the recommended levels of nutrients. But can this be true? How long a human survive with lesser calories and other vital nutrients like proteins? If the nutrient intake is tending to be lower, in spite of the progress the country has made, the implication is that the productive capacity of the working population is becoming poorer day by day. Here is the gist of the argument put forward by some critics on this issue which may be some what far fetched. 

"The average protein intake of a person through normal diet has dipped 6-10% in the past two decades with almost 80% of rural population and 70% of urban people not getting the government-designated 2,400kcal per day worth of nutrition, latest data shows. Comparative estimates drawn by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) reveal that in urban areas the gap in nutrition intake is worse. While the richest get over 2,518kcal each per day, the poorest get less than 1,679kcal — a difference of nearly 50%. "The situation has very harmful health implications, apart from its sheer inhumanity," says Vaibhav Kulkarni, chairman-nutraceuticals committee (western region), Ficci.  The data shows daily protein consumption at the national level dipped from 60.2g for a person in 1993-94 to 56.5g in 2011-12 in rural areas and from 57.2g to 55.7g in urban areas. Experts say though there are many reasons behind the dip, change in eating habits and decline in quality of natural products are some of the key reasons for the reducing nutrition intake".

The reason attributed to this "dip" in nutrition status is the undesirable change in food habits though it is not clearly spelt why there should be a lowering of calorie intake?. Globally with affluence among low income groups, calories intake usually shoots up while overall nutritive value of the diet suffers with respect to many essential nutrients. The word "empty calorie" has been coined to reflect the poor quality of such calorie rich diets containing high sugars and fats. If human physiology is taken seriously, humans will not compromise on hunger if they have money in their hands and there is no reason why Indians cannot spend on calorie adequate foods such as cereals which are supplied at low prices through the Public Distribution system of the country to the poor people? In the light of these realities, it is difficult to take the figures trotted out above as true reflection of the situation existing in the country. National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) with its nutrition monitoring net work has not raised this matter so far and Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) is a reliable agency to forewarn about any such alarming trend, if it really is true.  


Monday, May 11, 2015

Plastic Parks-Will it fulfill the dream of achieving tectonic transformation in employment generation?

On an earlier occasion there was a criticism by this Blogger regarding the proposal to set up "Plastic" Parks in different parts of the country to increase the production of various plastic materials required by many user industries mainly because of the fact that plastic produced from fossil fuels is not a sustainable proposition in the long run. Of course there are new plastics emerging using new technologies based on renewable sources of carbon with minimum environmental pollution. One is not sure from the information available from the government regarding the product mix and technology mix being considered for setting up production units in these new "Parks". If even a part of the projected "benefits" touted by the government is achievable, it could be a game changer. However if the gap between "talk" and "act" evident in the past is any indication these parks also are not going to be different from others floated by other ministries like MFPI. Here is a gist of the grand vision projected by the concerned minister recently in a "conference" and readers are free to come to their own conclusions regarding whether this is a PR exercise or a realistic and honest effort.  

"A meeting of the Consultative Committee of Members of Parliament attached to the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers was held on April 7, 2015 to discuss the progress on Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemical Investment Regions (PCPIRs) and plastic parks. "Today's challenge in the sector is value addition and for that value addition, milking the crude for further proliferation of the downstream industries is needed," said Ananth Kumar, minister of chemicals& fertilizers, in the meeting. The Modi Government is targeting to achieve an investment of Rs 7,62,000 crores and generate employment for 34 lakh people in PCPIRs, in time bound manner. Already there has been an investment Rs 1,06,000 crores which has generated employment for 2.23 lakh people in various PCPIRs. The minister informed the committee members about government's initiatives to increase the number of plastic parks from 4 to 10 to catch up with the increasing demand. He also mentioned that the number of Central Institutes for Plastic Engineering and Technology (CIPET) will be increased from 23 to 100, to create additional capacity for skill development in the area. Ananth Kumar said that the Government is emphasising on reducing the consumption of non-biodegradable plastics, and re-using and re-cycling of other graded polymers. He said that the Government has instituted awards for green technology in plastic processing, to promote environment-friendly efforts in the industry." 

The figures quoted by the minister are indeed staggering to say the least. Investments to the tune of seven and half lakh crore are breath taking while generating employment for a quarter million people is highly impressive. The proposal to set up 100 R & D and training centers for skill development is mind boggling. How far these Parks will go for new green technologies cannot be foreseen since India lags far behind many other countries in developing technologies production from renewable resources and for those with biodegradable credentials. Probably to really put into operation these ideals and aspirations large scale foreign participation may be necessary which is linked to foreign investment policy of the government. All we can do at this juncture is to wish the minister good luck and hope for the best.