Anyone who has illusions about the influence of corporate interests on public policy in India, or about the priorities of elected representatives, would do well to read the recent correspondence among the Biscuit Manufacturers Association (BMA), Members of Parliament and various ministries. The main issue in this correspondence is a proposal to replace cooked mid-day meals in primary schools with biscuits.
The trail begins with a letter from the BMA to MPs, signed by the BMA President, who is also an employee of Parle Products. The letter makes an elaborate plea for biscuits as an “alternative” for cooked mid-day meals in primary schools. There is a specific pitch for the Rs 3.75 glucose biscuit packet, which allegedly contains all the required nutrients and costs much the same as a cooked mid-day meal under current norms. As it happens, the biggest manufacturer of such glucose biscuit packets is none other than Parle Products.
Among other arguments, the letter mentions that biscuits have “higher recall”. This is an interesting hint about the BMA’s real motives. In the business world, ‘recall’ means the proportion of people who remember a particular brand, and recall data are used to track advertising effectiveness. It is not difficult to imagine that an advertisement campaign based on giving every child the same packet of biscuits every day (at the government’s expense) would have high ‘recall’.
It is perhaps not surprising that biscuit manufacturers, like other businesses, should use their influence to sell their products. As Milton Friedman famously said, “The business of business is business.” What is more disturbing is the way MPs reacted to this lobbying operation. How many of them received the BMA letter is not known. But what is known is that at least 29 of them wrote personally to Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh and urged him to consider the biscuits proposal. Quite likely, this is just a partial count, as the Ministry was “flooded with such letters”, according to one senior official.
These 29 letters, obtained by the Commissioners of the Supreme Court in the ‘right to food’ case, are quite edifying. The signatories include members of most major political parties (Congress, BJP, RJD, Samajwadi Party, and so on) except for the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Left parties. Nine of them represent constituencies in Maharashtra (which has a thriving biscuit industry), and six belong to the Shiv Sena. Familiar names in the list include K. Natwar Singh (Congress), Ramdas Athawale (Republican Party), Syed Shahnawaz Hussain (BJP) and Susheela Laxman Bangaru (BJP). What is interesting is that the letters read much the same across authors and parties. For instance, the letters signed by Natwar Singh and Athawale are almost identical from top to bottom. Similarly, several MPs confidently argue for biscuits on the grounds that “the ratio of carbohydrates, proteins, fats and glucose is quite balanced and beneficial to human health of all age group especially for children (sic).”
The clue to this telepathy is not far to seek: most of these statements are lifted straight from the BMA’s promotion material. In other words, these enterprising MPs saw nothing wrong in re-hashing the BMA letter and forwarding it to the Minister under their own signature. All this, of course, is done in the name of the welfare of children.
To be fair, some of these MPs may genuinely feel (despite much evidence to the contrary) that schoolchildren would be better off with biscuits than with cooked meals. Even then, troubling questions remain. For instance, did they form this view on the basis of serious enquiry? Or were they swayed by the BMA’s tutorial? If it was based on enquiry, why did they need to cut and paste from the BMA’s letter to make their case? And is this kind of plagiarism appropriate in any case?
The letters also reveal the central role played in this campaign by Abu Asim Azmi, MP (Samajwadi Party) from Maharashtra. Aside from contributing one of the 29 gems sent to the Ministry, Azmi wrote similar letters to other ministries, seeking appointments with a host of bureaucrats and ministers. These letters repeatedly state that the BMA has presented “the merits of substituting biscuits with the existing pre-cooked meal”. This sentence, aside from exposing Azmi’s innocence of the matter (there is no such thing as an ‘existing pre-cooked meal’), is one indication — among many — that the intention is to replace cooked meals with biscuits, and not just add biscuits to the menu.
It is not the first time that Azmi bravely risks his reputation. During the last few years, he has battled a spate of allegations about his role in recent incidents of communal violence in Mumbai, including an affidavit filed in 1997 by the then Bombay Police Commissioner claiming that he had links with Dawood Ibrahim. He has also been chargesheeted by the Economic Offences Wing for siphoning off government funds in the multi-crore cobbler scam of 1995. Whatever the truth of these allegations (the system often confuses victim with criminal), Azmi seems to live dangerously.
The silver lining is that the biscuit lobby received a fitting reply from the HRD Ministry. The response was well-considered, coming as it did after a round of consultations with state governments. Most of them shot down the proposal for replacing cooked meals with biscuits. So did nutrition experts such as Dr B Sesikeran, Director of the National Institute of Nutrition, who clearly stated that the mid-day meal scheme “is supposed to provide one wholesome meal to schoolchildren and biscuits cannot replace it”. Following on this, Arjun Singh sent a strong rejection letter to the BMA. Similarly, when this issue came up in the Lok Sabha on February 26, Mohammad Ali Ashraf Fatmi, HRD Minister of State, clarified that the biscuit approach does not “fulfill the nutritional norms, dietary requirement and satiety of children and further it also deprives many intrinsic benefits that are being derived through present pattern of implementation”.
All is well that ends well in this case. It is worth mentioning, however, that this is not an isolated attack on cooked mid-day meals for children. Just to cite another example, Real Contracts Private Limited recently approached the HRD Ministry with a proposal to replace freshly cooked mid-day meals with ‘Ready to Cook and Serve Hot’ meals — dehydrated food that would just require boiling before serving. As Arjun Singh himself put it in a recent letter to Chief Minister Mayawati on this issue: “We are, indeed, dismayed at the growing requests for introduction of pre-cooked foods, emanating largely from suppliers/marketers of packaged foods, and aimed essentially at penetrating and deepening the market for such foods.”
According to recent media reports, the BMA has not given up. Undeterred by the rebuttal on mid-day meals, it has now written to Renuka Chowdhury, Minister of State for Women and Child Development, with a similar proposal for supplying biscuits to children below the age of six years under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). Let us hope that Chowdhury will deliver them as straight an arrow as the fearless Arjun Singh.
Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera are development economists at the Delhi School of Economics