Micro-nutrition gets a shot in the arm

Updated: Oct 30 2005, 06:15am hrs
More than two billion people worldwide suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies (VMDs), of which 30% are from India. The deficiencies in most cases affect women and children leading to disturbances in health, intelligence, work capacity, reproduction, and other ailments. These observations have been made in a report on nutrition deficiency and disorders released recently by an international welfare organisation, Micronutrient Initiative (MI). The Canada-based organisation is dedicated to addressing the nutrition deficiency in human diet with emphasis on young children and pregnant and lactating women.

Says Venkatesh Mannar, president, MI, With the success of Green Revolution decades ago, India is indeed a food-sufficient country today. Though rich with godowns and spoilt with the practice of stuffing ourselves with food any hour of the day, we even well-off ones hardly eat nutritious food. The shortcoming becomes even more prominent in case of the underprivileged. He adds, We estimate the deficiencies to cost the Indian economy at least Rs 2,77,000 crore over the next 10 years in lost human potential.

Initiating their Indian operations in 1997, MI is currently working in alliance with national and state governments and private sector to reach out to those affected. Based on its evidence-based approach, the body targets countries with high VMD burdens through its cost-effective and affordable programmes that work on a large scale.

In 2004, MI supported the installation of a double fortified salt (DFS) manufacturing facility at the Tamil Nadu Salt Corporation (TNSC). Today the state government undertaking manufactures and supplies 1.5 tonnes of premix (the iodine and iron rich formulation) across seven districts in the state. For 2005-06, the organisation plans to meet the requirements of the mid-day meal programme in all the 29 districts of Tamil Nadu benefitting around 3.6 million students.

Another project undertaken by the organisation is the fortification of cereal flours, cooking oils, salts and condiments. The programme, again through the mid-day meal programme, is now running across Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. The Khichdi, made with rice and lentils, is distributed alongside the lozenges by Indias Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to disadvantaged and nutritionally at-risk children.

We helped develop a micro-nutrient premix, Vita Shakti, to improve the nutritional content of the khichdi. The formulation, recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), is mixed with the food items locally at a low cost. The food is subsidised further by the state governments involved in the projects to reach out to the needy at a faster rate, says Mannar.

Other corporate partners of MI include Hindustan Salt (for making DFS), Pamglatt Pharmaceuticals (for making iron premix), Sampre Nutritions Ltd (for making fortified candies), Nicholas Piramal (for manufacturing Vitamin A Premix) and Roller Flour Millers Federation of India (for making fortified flour), amongst others.

For most of the companies, these orders came as plain business offers initially. However, the nature of their association has changed over time.

Explains K Ponnuchamy, chairman and MD, Hindustan Salt, The assignment of manufacturing something called an iron fortified salt was an experiment initially. Today, we make 9,000 tonnes of nutritious salt annually and supply it to Chhatisgarh at a subsidised cost of 25 paise per kg. After realising the importance of being connected to a mission which helps in fulfilling this minuscule but crucial human need, we have come to appreciate its worth. Now we know how to do things differently.

The company with salt brand Sambhar plans to expand its operations by setting a salt-fortification plant at Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan by January next year. The plant will manufacture 60,000 tonnes per annum for our target consumers across Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Bihar. The Rs-1 crore plant will be funded jointly by Hindustan Salts and Micronutrient Initiative, he says.

Similarly, getting into nutrient-rich candies was again incidental for Hyderabad-based Sampre Nutritions Ltd (SNL). But now it seems, through these nutritious candies, we have got the much desired USP every company wants to have, says Mirza M Sami, director, SNL. Its water-soluble toffees contain Vitamin A, C, folic acid and iron. Costing 15 paise each, the candies are distributed free of cost across schools in Bihar. The candies are a sure shot way to cater to the hidden hunger of the human body for vitamins and minerals, says Sami, who is now planning to patent the product Nutri-Candy.

SNL manufactures around 100 tonnes of nutritious candies every month. The states that buy the candies are subsidising the cost. From its side, the company also tries to keep the cost price low. We are sure that we want to do it. Its a great concept to stick to, says Sami. Moving beyond the pilot project in Bihar, the company is now getting bigger orders from other states like Andhra Pradesh.

Similarly, Pamglatt started making the iron-premix years back at its office in the United States. When the project was brought to India, Micronutrient Initiative came with the formulation to us, says Ajit Kanetkar, general manager, Pamglatt India. Recommended by the Unicef and MI, the formulation is diluted to the available iodised salt in a proportion of 1:40. The premix is currently being supplied to Tamil Nadu under an agreement with the state government and MI.

Though the concept is catching up among the Indian states, Kanetkar believes that the Central and state governments must launch awareness programmes to take the concept further. We are discussing with our partners several programmes to reach out to the maximum number of people, he says.

Rewa Nayyar, secretary, Department of Women and Child Development, also thinks that even if India has been a pioneer amongst developing countries in its efforts to protect its citizens against nutrition-deficiency disorders, there is a need to accelerate the process.

I have written to government departments to use fortified food items be it mid-day meals or rations as we feel there is a great need to hasten the procedure of providing nutrient-rich food to all sections of the society, she says.