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‘A long journey that we have travelled together’

Rice fortification involves the manufacture of kernels made of rice flour fortified with vitamins A and D. To the naked eye, the fortified rice kernels (FRKs) look exactly like rice grains. These kernels are mixed with rice in a 1:100 ratio by rice millers before being distributed via the public distribution system (PDS) and fair price shops.

A. Surya Kumari, the district collector of Vizianagaram and the former MD of Andhra Pradesh State Civil Supplies Corporation, talks about the ups and downs of the rice fortification programme implemented in partnership with the Tata Trusts

A. Surya Kumari

When did the state government begin the engagement between Andhra Pradesh State Civil Supplies Corporation and the Tata Trusts for rice fortification?

In 2016-17, the principal secretary of agriculture entered into an MoU with the Tata Trusts and the state civil supplies corporation started talks about rice fortification. It took 2 ½ years of technical know-how and planning for the delivery of fortified rice. I believe that is the shortest time for any state to roll out such a colossal programme. The mission was very high level, but we were able to achieve it with the partnership of the Tata Trusts.

The rice fortification programme for PDS began as a pilot project in Vizianagaram in two constituencies, Bobbili and Parvathipuram. Vizianagaram was selected because it is an aspirational (backward) district and the lowest in terms of consumption. We started with two constituencies in the district and then expanded to all 14.

What is the current footprint of the programme, in terms of geographical coverage and service delivery?

Currently, fortified rice is part of all PDS supplies in Vizianagaram, available to over 2 million cardholders under the public distribution system. The annual requirement is about 144,000 metric tonnes.

Since April-May, Andhra Pradesh has started providing fortified rice in anganwadi centres and government schools. Fortified rice is being supplied to 2,701 schools, 3,729 anganwadi centres and 1,407 fair price shops. And we are doing this through 778 partnerships at the village and ward levels, including door delivery vans. This is quite an achievement.

Has this initiative changed nutrition metrics in the field, especially anaemia and vitamin enhancements?

We have the data from a baseline survey, but the midline survey was hampered due to Covid. I am hopeful that we can take it up soon and that the midline data will show some improvement in nutrition metrics. We would like an external partner to support the survey as the data will be like a litmus test and will show if any course corrections are needed.

What are the different ways in which the Trusts supported the government?

It’s been a long journey that we have travelled together. The major contribution from the Trusts has been the level of technical know-how. They also helped us reduce the costs. The breakthrough provided by Tata Trusts was on methodology, ie the use of continuous blending rather than batch blending. This turned out to be very successful.

Then there was a time when we thought that rice millers would not agree to go for the blending machinery. The Trusts helped us work with the millers. We showed them the easiest methods in terms of both finance and technology, and we were able to convince them. Now they can purchase the machinery for less than 500,000. Thus, we were able to produce fortified rice in minimum time with minimum resources.

What were the challenges in implementing this project in the field?

One big challenge was ensuring the availability of FRKs. The Trusts helped encourage entrepreneurs to set up FRK plants and identify suppliers of the vitamin premix that goes into the FRKs. Getting the FRKs tested and certified took time as there are very few accredited labs around.

All this called for meticulous planning, but it came together and we were able to achieve things in an economical fashion. The corporation took the responsibility of procuring and testing the FRKs. The millers learnt how to introduce the FRKs into the rice as the last step in the milling process. In the end, the project was a success. If it hadn’t been for Covid, we would have completed this 14-16 months ago.

What are the advantages that strong government-civil society partnership models like this offer to citizens?

I feel that having an external partner helps in advocacy. Consider fortified rice in the PDS system, which includes the lowest-cost commodities in the market. When we say that a PDS commodity is undergoing such a massive change in terms of nutrition, it is difficult for the citizen to believe us. So, if an external partner like the Trusts promotes it, acceptance becomes easier for ordinary citizens, as well as millers and FRK producers. Roping in an acknowledged partner like the Trusts is a reinforcement that helps speed up processes.

Rice fortification is an important weapon in the fight against malnutrition
Rice fortification is an important weapon in the fight against malnutrition