"The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right; greed works."
- This fictional character Gordon Gekko's address to stockholders in the famous movie Wall Street , still seems to find a good cheering audience, both among the business and the elected representative body, in India. The latest in this avarice seems to be the $1.5 billion Biscuit industry's desperate attempt to double its market share by its brow-raising offer to supply biscuits through government's Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS). The industry along with the MPs, who they have evidently have pocketed, are lobbying for serving biscuits instead of the traditional cooked meals under MDMS.

According to these self-proclaimed experts, not only in  the field of nutrition but also in the multifaceted socio-economic development, biscuits are the best meals for the 120 million growing children across the country who are covered under MDMS. It escapes my comprehension as to how company's like ITC, Parle and Britannia are backing baseless statements of MPs that biscuits are a favorite snack of children and that they have a higher recall and acceptance among the intended beneficiaries of the MDMS. How can one, based just on the grounds of couple of corruption cases and reported poor quality of meals, stretch to make claims that cooked meals should be replaced by packaged biscuits? The least one expected from the industry was to lend its mind-space in efficiently managing supply chain and delivery channels. Instead all one can see is the potential atrocity when "greed" and "corruption" join hands. 

It seems that the lobbyists need a primer not only on nutrition but also on the multipurpose objectives of MDMS. As per the Supreme Court order, all states are mandated to provide every child in Government/Government-assisted primary schools with a "prepared meal" instead of "dry rations". The revised norms of NP-NSPE even specify the minimum content of 450 calories, 12 gm of Protein, with adequate quantities of micro-nutrients such as Iron, Folic acid, Vitamin-A, etc.

However, today's most ubiquitous Parle-G Glucose biscuits claim to provide just about 300 calories and protein of less than 5 gm in serving size of 11 biscuits. So, how many biscuits is a child expected to munch in a day and of course without the usual accomplice of a cup of tea or coffee? Is the industry claiming that it would come with a perfect recipe with all the essential nutritional ingredients in magical proportions all within the current average conversion cost of Rs 1.17? Is the industry setting new paradigms for CSR by sacrificing its usual margins? Even if we were to accept the unusual benign nature of the industry, can a biscuit be any distant substitute to a hot cooked meal which can offer the variety to sustain the interest of children?

Today it is the biscuit industry and tomorrow it could well be the packaged food and even confectionery industries vying for the lucrative piece of this Government initiative. Before one tends towards the industry side based on common charges of corruption and health hazards as a result of food not being cooked in hygienic conditions which might be partially true, one needs to carefully consider the sheer impact of cooked meals on aspects such as child nutrition, school attendance and social equity. Firstly, in deprived areas where the child does not even get two square meals a day, these cooked meals are enjoyed as a "festival food".  In areas where hunger is endemic, will one value the assurance of cookies? Secondly,  the socialization value that MDMS brings as children sit together and share a common meal would seem to get eroded if one is given a pack of biscuits instead. (Hope that one is not attempting to to create a "High Tea" gathering here!) Thirdly, the employment opportunities created for the poor women in particular has no place if cookies are to replace cooked meals. (For a detailed analysis read here)

Now on the "corruption" argument front, I wonder how packaged snacks is any less vulnerable. What is needed to minimize corruption in MCDS is an overhaul of our monitory system. The need of the hour is development of appropriate technologies and operational models that will improve the administration of MDMS. Is it too much to expect the industry to partner with the state at operational or management level to ensure delivery of warm healthy meals to vulnerable children without incurring high cost? Who is to defend the right to food of vulnerable groups when MPs decide to leave them in the hands of corporations whose sole objective seems profits?

Thanks to SC-appointed commissioners who have just today slammed the suggestion by MPs' group. Well, now it remains to see if someone will wake up the industry's "conscience"!

~ Santosh 
 

 


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