New Delhi: The Congress Thursday targeted the Narendra Modi government over rolling out fortified rice under PDS and accused it of going ahead with the decision without ascertaining the outcome of independent research and the ill effects of such rice on the health of 80 crore poor people.
Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera asked what was the tearing hurry to implement the scheme of providing fortified rice containing prescribed micronutrients and "what relation does the government have with the foreign conglomerate Royal DSM" which has bagged a major contract to distribute the rice in the country.
He also sought to know whether any quid pro quo was involved.
A couple of days ago, the government said fortified rice was being distributed through ration shops in 439 districts and other welfare schemes so far while asserting that there is enough global evidence of its health benefits.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address in 2021 said the government aims to distribute fortified rice via government schemes by 2024.
Thereafter, a scheme for the distribution of fortified rice, containing prescribed micronutrients -- iron, folic acid, Vitamin B12 -- was launched on October 2021 in a phased manner to address the problem of anaemia among women and children.
Congress spokesperson Khera alleged the Modi government rolled out fortified rice under the Food Security Act despite "failed" pilot projects and multiple warnings by experts, government officials, FSSAI and Niti Aayog advisors.
He said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had on Independence Day in 2021 made the rather "unusual and unconventional" announcement about implementing the fortified rice scheme despite warnings.
Three days later, NITI Aayog officials began drawing up a plan to universalize rice fortification. But on November 29 that year, Niti Aayog's member on Agriculture Ramesh Chand raised the concerns expressed by some medical experts about the adverse effect of iron-fortified rice on the health of children, Khera claimed.
This was also mentioned by the director general of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) who called for the need for consultation with a wide range of experts on the effect of fortification of rice on human health before pushing it further, he said.
"This meant that even the ICMR -- India's premier medical research body -- had serious doubts about the effectiveness of fortified rice. Member of NITI Aayog's National Technical Board on Nutrition Anura Kurpad found an increase in serum levels linked to diabetes in children who were given iron-fortified rice," he said.
He claimed that fortified rice, which the government was pushing into the nationwide public distribution system under the Food Security Act, has 20 mg of iron.
"Will 80 crore people pay the price of the ill-conceived imposition of PM Modi's fortified rice? Did the Modi government get enamoured by a foreign conglomerate or were there vested interests involved," the Congress spokesperson asked.
"Why did PM Modi not ascertain the outcome of independent research studies or globally acclaimed studies on fortification and rolled out a nationwide scheme targeting 80 crore of India's poor? What was the tearing hurry to risk the health and lives of 80 crore poor Indians? Does it not show the anti-poor mindset of the Modi government," he said.
"Why did the Modi government's Food and Public Distribution Department, Ministry of Women and Child Development and the regulator FSSAI not listen to their internal warnings which were underlined repeatedly by experts and advisors?
"Why did they not listen to NITI Aayog members? Why did they not listen to the Department of Expenditure under their own Finance Ministry? What prevented them from first ascertaining the facts with a scientific mechanism and then taking such a big decision," Khera asked.
He also asked what is the "relationship between Royal DSM and the Modi Govt".
"Why did its Regional Vice-President Franois Scheffler express his sincere gratitude to PM Modi? Was the entire conceptualization of FSSAI's fortification resource hub and multiple ad campaigns spending crores, a deal or a quid pro quo between the Modi Government and an MNC conglomerate," Khera asked.
He said that to test whether fortified rice really cures anaemia and other micronutrient deficiencies that lead to stunting and wasting, the government launched tests under a pilot scheme in February 2019 which were to go on till March 2022.
But instead of waiting for the results of all the tests, PM Modi announced a full-blown scheme in 2021, affecting over half of the country's population, he claimed.
Taking a swipe at the prime minister, the Congress leader said "masterstroke" is the word associated with the prime minister's decisions and is especially used by a section of the media.
"We know what happened when such masterstrokes are announced. We know what happened when demonetisation happened suddenly in 2016 and what disaster it spelt on the poor.
"We know what happened when a Covid lockdown was suddenly announced and how the poor migrants suffered. We know what is happening with the Rs 2,000 note under DeMO 2.0 which was announced a few days ago. India suffers," he alleged.
Asked if the Congress would raise the issue in Parliament, he said the party would raise the issue on all platforms and help reach out to the people.
"The Modi government brazenly lied on the floor of Parliament. The Ministry of Women and Child Development, when asked about the 'success' of the so-called 'pilots' on August 5, 2022, said 'The pilot was successful in ensuring the ecosystem for fortified rice throughout the country', and deceptively kept silent on the impact of fortified rice in nutrient deficiency despite it being one of the key objectives of the pilot," Khera said.
The Congress spokesperson also claimed that none of the pilot projects that Niti Aayog reviewed had carried out the basic surveys to map the existing levels of micronutrient deficiency in the district population before forcing them to consume fortified rice for a year.