Karnataka’s decision to feed malnourished children spirulina supplements is highly questionable

Karnataka's decision to feed malnourished children spirulina supplements is highly questionable

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Food Insecurity
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How can a child gain its required 4-6 kilograms weight with just two grams of a capsule, asks a nutrition expert.

Karnataka’s Women and Child Department launched a dietary supplement programme in April by which it would administer spirulina capsules to malnourished children in anganwadis. The scheme is based on pilot programs carried out by three corporate entities – JSW Foundation, Scania and Biocon Foundation. Former deputy director of National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad Veena Shatrugna traces the history of the Integrated Child Development Scheme and examines how the new Karnataka programme goes against the goals of the Food Security Act and the ICDS.

After a lot of effort, we managed to effect the legislation of the National Food Security Act in 2013. We have entitlements that were laid down in the statute to ensure the right to food for Indians. For instance, for the family, there was public distribution system, and for school children there was the midday meal programme. For children below six years of age, the programme handling nutrition was the Integrated Child Development Scheme.

However, the ICDS is not a new invention. It started on October 2, 1975. Why was it laid down? The National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, had done large number of surveys based on actual food intakes and also the weights and heights of children in the country and found out that children were hungry. Children cannot tell if they are hungry. They usually sit in a corner and cry, instead of running about. In addition they would simply stop putting on weight or growing in height. We found out that a massive 70% of the children were underweight and about 50%-60% were short. This was a crisis, especially after the famine in the 1960s.

Evolution of the ICDS

Dr C Gopalan, who was the Director of the National Institute of Nutrition then, convinced the government that it cannot abdicate its responsibility. The institute formulated a policy to tackle the problem of malnutrition. The research showed that the mothers were very poor, and had to work for incomes, and it was difficult for them to feed children.

A child between 1-6 years needs about 1,000-1,600 calories a day, and there was a deficit in intakes of at least 40% to 50%. It was decided that every child will be fed at least 300 calories a day in the ICDS, though ideally the child should be eating five-six times a day. This food will be provided locally. It was also obvious that local produce including cereal, pulse and greens (containing vitamin A and iron), with seasonal vegetables, oil or groundnuts, and milk powder will be provided to each child. The food was to be sourced locally and cooked by women in the area.

The programme was launched with much fanfare. The nutritionists finished their work. But on the field, there was a lot of chaos. The scheme needed social transformation to get going. In some places, food cooked by Dalits would not be eaten by upper castes, or Dalits children would not be allowed to eat in the upper caste areas of the village. The government had not put in place a room for these women to cook.

The most important finding was that the nutritionists were surprised and even angry that the children shared their food with their siblings, thus upsetting a “scientifically well planned” programme. It exposed the total lack of sensitivity by the scientists to the cultures of eating in poor and Dalit households. There was a struggle to plug these loopholes, and the programme kept wobbling till the Supreme Court stepped in.

Corporate involvement

In 2001, after a famine in Rajasthan and other northern states, the People’s Union of Civil Liberties filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court regarding hunger and starvation deaths in the country (PUCL vs Union of India and Others, Writ Petition (Civil) 196 of 2001). The court ordered the government to put in place the Public Distribution System and feeding programmes for children, pregnant and lactating women.

The Supreme Court has not yet given a final judgment but has given a series of interim orders basically telling the government to implement all food programmes. In 2004, the apex court ordered that no contractors should be hired to run the programme, and instead the authorities should hire village communities, women self-help groups instead. The ICDS got a second lease of life then.

But this phase of ICDS has also seen increasing corporate interest. Different corporates have wanted to join in the programme to make a quick buck. In 2008, the Biscuits Manufacturers Association lobbied the government to replace hot meals in the ICDS programme with their products. The offer was shot down by the Supreme Court appointed commissioners.

The Uttar Pradesh government gave a contract to slain liquor baron Ponty Chadha’s company to make a wheat flour mixture called panjeeri for the ICDS. Later in 2012, when the activists of the Right to Food Campaign sent samples for analysis, it was found that 25%-30% of the cereal sugar mixture was actually sawdust.

In Karnataka too, there have been many corporations that have supplied food for the programme. In 2009, the government gave a contract to Christy Friedgram, a Tamil Nadu-based company that promised to set up training centres for women who could buy food locally and cook meals for children, and run these centres independently. Instead, sacks full of readymade rancid food from factories were sent for the children, and the women were just hired to pack them. The agreement was cancelled by the government in 2012.

Is spirulina a real food supplement?

Now, Biocon and JSW group have offered to give spirulina capsules as part of their corporate social responsibility programme. Spirulina is an algae that grows in water, and it is mostly common to South America. It is said to contain proteins and some micronutrients. The programme in Karnataka intends to give children two grams of spirulina daily.

How can Karnataka hand over a children’s programme to corporations when we do not even have the evidence about the safety of this drug? The drug has questionable nutrients, and could even be toxic. Half a carrot, a drop of oil or a few ground nuts will give much more nutrients than spirulina. This substance is neither certified as a drug under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 or as a food under Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. Is it possible that attempts are made to do a clinical trial with this substance which is not even indigenous to India? Why cannot we promote our own diet, which will help our local economies?

Fifteen years ago, the National Institute of Nutrition, conducted a study using spirulina to combat vitamin A deficiency in children. But the study had to be terminated as the levels of beta-carotene – a pigment that the human body converts into the essential vitamin A – dropped to 40% of its value within one month of receipt of the capsules.. Instead, we realised that a seasonal fruit or an egg could help increase vitamin A levels.

Let’s look the simple laws of physics. How can a child, who probably needs to gain 4-6 kilos, going to add weight with just two grams of a capsule given daily (which amounts to 730gms/ year). Two grams is, probably the weight of a small seed. Children need food that is traditional and tasty. Giving hot cooked meals would help them not only to gain weight, but also to help improve their eating habits. How can we take away the satisfaction and joy that these cooked meals give? Hot cooked meals endorse the local foods, provides employment, and helps women appreciate quality foods appropriate for children.

As told to Menaka Rao.

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