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‘No Poison in Our Foods, Please,’ India For Safe Food tells FSSAI

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Pressing the food safety regulator FSSAI to take concrete action against illegal GM foods flooding into Indian markets, as confirmed recently by Centre for Science & Environment (CSE)’s findings, a delegation of citizens representing India For Safe Food turned up at the FDA Bhawan (FSSAI office) in Delhi.

“The response of the FSSAI does not satisfy us. It is not enough that they say that they are in the process of formulating regulations with regard to GM foods. They have said this for years now. What about the interim, when GM is being consumed by unaware citizens unknowingly, and when industry is using loopholes to undertake unlawful sales?”, said Indian For Safe Food (IFSF) in a statement here.

IFSF demanded that all GM foods, which are illegal in India, be removed by FSSAI immediately, and that punitive action be initiated against the violators so that it also becomes a deterrent for others.

The delegation met with the CEO of FSSAI with a memorandum and a basket of the illegal GM foods with a message that said, “No Poison in Our Food”. “The FSSAI CEO did not commit to anything concrete in terms of acting on illegal and unapproved hazardous GM foods. He said that he will not act on a private organisation’s findings. He didn’t even say that FSSAI will take up the testing itself, verify and act either! In fact, we are aghast that he asserted that there are no adverse health impacts from GM foods, ignoring the vast body of scientific evidence that already exists”, said Ajay Etikala, a young Delhi’ite who works to promote awareness about safe food among the urban consumers. “We will continue to put pressure on FSSAI until they act in the interest of citizens”.

CSE’s lab testing of food products samples from Delhi, Punjab and Gujarat found that one third of the samples tested were positive for GM even though genetically modified (GM) foods are illegal in India. Around 16 of the 21 foods that were GM positive (80%) were imported and five were manufactured in India. This means that a vast majority of illegal GM foods are making their way into India by way of stealthy imports. About 13 of the brands did not mention use of GM ingredients anywhere on their labels, while three products were even mislabeled, saying they were GM-free. GM-positive imported food products were based on, or used soy, cotton seed, corn and rapeseed. Positive samples manufactured domestically were made from cottonseed.

Jaya Iyer of KHANA, a consumer awareness group working on food justice issues said, “Consumers have the right to know what they are consuming. Right to safe food and right to informed choices are all being violated by the inaction of FSSAI. It is very shocking that FSSAI is not putting out an order instructing all such foods to be removed from the shop shelves, distribution centres and storehouses. There are instances in the past when they have indeed acted responsibly and got their enforcement wings to remove unapproved foods. Why will they not do it now?”

“In fact, all foods that are ‘suspected-to-be-GM’ (based on the country of origin being GM-cultivating, and ingredients list containing corn, canola, soy, cottonseed, squash and papaya) should be allowed to be sold only if an undertaking, based on lab testing, is given by the importer that they are GM-Free. In fact, the foreign trade regulatory regime requires this. If this is not done, we will have to assume that the regulators are on the side of the food industry, and are willing to jeopardise consumer health and are ready to work against their very core mandate”, said Dharmendra Kumar of Janpahal, another consumer awareness group which also works with street vendors.

Dr Amar Singh Azad, Director of Kheti Virasat Mission’s Environmental Health Action Group, who is a public health expert and also a child health expert said, “Consumers have every reason to worry about such GM foods. The genetic engineering process, the individual genes used as well as the chemicals that are used in conjunction with GM crops are making these foods hazardous for human consumption. GM foods can potentially result in infertility, immune system disorders, damage to vital organs like liver, kidney, pancreas, lungs, brain etc., allergies, gastro-intestinal problems, adverse effects on the development and growth of an organism, and even cancerous growth, as per various studies available. There is evidence of correlation between consumption of GM crops or consumption of animals fed with GM crops to the incidence of chronic diseases like organ diseases, (thyroid and liver) cancers and neurological diseases from the USA. There is scientific evidence on alterations in the nutritional composition of a GM food. There is absolutely no reason or need for India to be allowing such GM foods to be consumed here. The Government should actively ensure that GM foods do not enter our food chain”.

“FSSAI is expected to maintain the highest standards of safety for consumers. A day after the findings of CSE were made public, thousands of tweets demanded more concrete action from FSSAI. Later, the Coalition for a GM-Free India sent a letter to FSSAI demanding effective action. The FSSAI has not reacted positively so far, we are very disappointed about what we heard from the CEO today, and this does not improve the credibility of the regulatory agency. The Minister for Health & Family Welfare should initiate investigation into the procedural lapses that led to such large scale flooding of GM foods into our market and take action on the regulators who were not discharging their duties”, said Dr Rajinder Chaudhary of Kudrati Kheti Abhiyan.

The delegation of IFSF, while it presented its demands memorandum to the FSSAI, was supported on social media by a Twitter Action from citizens all over India, demanding that FSSAI to remove  GM foods from the market, and penalise violators.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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