Feature story

Kernels on the march

Rice has become more than nice at two sites in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district thanks to a fortification pilot project that is ushering in better community health

It’s late morning and Anasuya Netam is preparing lunch at her home in Lendhari village in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. As she cleans and sorts the rice grains, she comes across one that looks a little different. Instead of throwing it away, she smiles and touches her baby bump. The grain is a fortified rice kernel (FRK), good for her and her yet-to-be-born baby’s health.

FRKs are an innovative way to deliver essential nutrients to pregnant women, children and anybody else needing it, particularly vulnerable communities. Made from rice flour, each FRK is enriched with iron, folic acid and vitamins B1 and B12. When mixed with conventional rice and cooked normally, fortified rice can help tackle several deficiencies while improving overall health.

Gadchiroli is the setting for the rice-fortification pilot project introduced by the Tata Trusts in 2018 in partnership with the Maharashtra government. The choice of district is appropriate. Located in a tribal belt and beset by a long-running Maoist insurgency, Gadchiroli is one of Maharashtra’s most backward districts. The health indices of the region portray a story of poor nutrition, with government data showing more than half of the district’s pregnant women, young mothers and under-five children as being anaemic.

The two subdistricts in the pilot intervention — Bhamragad and Kurkheda — were picked because a baseline survey conducted prior to the project’s launch put them at the extremely unfavourable end of the health spectrum.

Deficient all around

The Trusts had teamed up with Indian Institute of Health Management Research, Jaipur, for the survey, which covered 900 households in 30 villages. The key findings: high all-round incidence of anaemia and iron deficiency; more than 60% of adolescent girls showed signs of nutrient deficiency; more than 35% of lactating mothers and 50% of pregnant women were anaemic.

Populated by the Mandia and Gondi tribes, literacy levels are extremely low in the region. Early marriages are commonplace and young mothers are mostly unaware of nutritional requirements. To make matters worse, the villagers’ diet is devoid of cereals and low on plant as well as animal protein. That makes iron deficiency the norm.

The rice-fortification initiative attempts to correct the diet anomaly by adding micronutrients to the villagers’ staple food — rice. It’s a subject the Trusts have gathered expertise in, and experience of, over the years, primarily through their partnership with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. The Food Fortification Resource Centre, set up and run jointly by the two organisations, enables the fortification with micronutrients of staples such as milk, salt, wheat and rice at an all-India scale.

Hyder Panjwani of the Armori-based Jena Agro Processing

Milling about with clear and present intent

Hyder Panjwani of Jena Agro Processing is an old hand in the rice-milling business. But he and his brother Salim were initially puzzled by the requirements of the Tata Trusts when the rice-fortification programme was being finalised.

Integrating local rice millers into the project was one of the big challenges that the Trusts faced. The millers were apprehensive about investing in an activity which did not promise profits. Consequently, only two of the eight rice millers associated with the PDS programme in the region agreed to participate.

Jena Agro, based in the town of Armori, became part of the programme after the Panjwani brothers, their doubts cleared, came on board. The Trusts team worked closely with Jena Agro to devise a new blending system. Assembling and fabricating local components, they came up with a blending system that cost just a tenth of the one initially envisaged. The improvisations in the design were so efficient that the blending accuracy was about 96% — much higher than the desired 91%.

Jena Agro’s success has spurred Gadchiroli’s rice milling businesses to offer their services for the next stage of the initiative, when the programme is scaled up to cover the entire district. As for the Panjwani brothers, they have become complete converts. “The Tata Trusts’ faith and zeal motivated us to participate in this programme,” says Hyder Panjwani.

Gadchiroli, however, was a different ballgame. This was the first time that the Trusts were attempting an intervention strategy through the public distribution system (PDS). To do it well, the Trusts and the Maharashtra government began by getting the local rice millers on their side.

Rice millers are an important cog in India’s food ecosystem. They process raw paddy into the rice that goes into the PDS supply chain. This rice is then despatched to fair-price (or ration) shops, which sell them to the community at subsidised rates. For the pilot programme, the rice millers were to be provided with the FRKs, which had to be mixed in a precise ratio of 1:100 (1 grain of FRK for 100 grains of conventional rice). This meant the millers needed new equipment in the form of a blending system that was affordable and reliable (see Milling about with clear intent on page 51).

Acceptance problem

With the blending systems in place and working successfully, the government despatched the first batch of fortified rice to Bhamragad and Kurkheda in January 2019. Shortly thereafter, the Trusts team came up against an entirely unexpected obstacle — the intended beneficiaries.

These were rural people, mostly from impoverished backgrounds, and they did not know much about the scheme or its positives. When they sorted the rice while cleaning it, they came across the FRKs. Since the kernels looked and tasted a trifle different when raw, there were murmurs of adulteration. The Trusts’ team soon found itself in the middle of a rumour storm — that ration rice was being contaminated with ‘plastic rice’.

“There were some viral videos about the ‘plastic rice’ — manufactured in China, no less — floating on social media,” says Sonal D’Souza, a programme officer with the Trusts, “and that created somemisconceptions among a few people.” The team had to work overtime to kill the kernel canard.

Community workshops were organised at various places, including village councils and local government offices. Local administration officials and prominent members of the local community were roped in to explain the principles and advantages of fortifying rice. Additionally, village self-help groups and childcare centres conducted cooking sessions with rice-based recipes.

A beneficiary in Gadchiroli’s Arewada village; fortified rice is an innovative way to deliver essential nutrients to pregnant women and children

Blind tasting sessions were held to demonstrate that there was no difference in the taste of FRK-blended rice once it was cooked. Alongside came banners and leaflets extolling the virtues of micronutrient-fortified rice. The communication campaign bore fruit and locals soon became convinced about the many health benefits of consuming fortified rice.

State support counts

The state government’s support for the pilot project has been a crucial factor in the success of this unusual public-private partnership. “The efforts of the local administration and the fair-price shop owners have convinced us sure that the fortified rice provided to us will improve our overall health,” says Chinnu Mahaka, a villager from Hemalkasa in Bhamragad.

The district officials acknowledge the Trusts’ role in driving the project. The Trusts have worked on multiple aspects to bring the programme up to speed: partnering district authorities to understand the PDS supply chain, identifying the specifications of the blending system, assessing the capacity of the local rice millers, pitching the idea to them and, finally, implementing the on-ground blending process with a miller who was open to trying out the new and improved process.

Self-help groups such as this one in Gadchiroli’s Kurkheda subdistrict played a crucial role in removing misconceptions about the fortified rice kernels

“The technical expertise that the Trusts brought to the table was invaluable,” says Shekhar Singh, the district collector of Gadchiroli. “As administrators, we are well-versed with logistics and supply parameters, but for the technical aspects, especially on-ground implementation of the blending systems at rice mills, we needed expert hands.”

The experiment at Gadchiroli has paved the way for a new strategy to counter the nutrition-related health afflictions of rural Maharashtra. The central government’s Department of Food and Civil Supplies is now scaling up the Trusts’ initiative to cover the remaining 10 subdistricts of Gadchiroli.

News of the Gadchiroli initiative has reached the ears of the NITI Aayog, the policy think tank of the Indian government, which earlier this year showcased the project as the ‘best case success in health and nutrition innovation’. The central government is now thinking about piloting a similar initiative in one district each across 15 states.

What the Gadchiroli programme shows, most of all, is the potency of a win-win relationship that involves various entities. What it also reveals is that community health improvement initiatives at the village level cannot but be collaborative

Women volunteers prepare fortified rice at a promotion event in Kurkheda to popularise its use