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The Bengali scientist whose efforts pioneered India’s midday meal scheme

28 November, 2022 17:37:30
The Bengali scientist whose efforts pioneered India’s midday meal scheme

Orphans who survived the Bengal famine of 1943

If you run a Google search for Sasank Sekhar De, chances are you won’t come up with too many relevant results. That is, if you are among the handful who still know his name. Because not even his home state of West Bengal, forget the rest of India, has remembered one of the pioneers of India’s midday meal scheme.

The genesis of his achievement lies in the mid-1940s, as World War II was coming to an end and Bengal was ravaged by a famine of epic proportions, thanks to Britain’s inhumane policy of keeping Allied soldiers adequately fed on the war front, at the cost of millions of starving Indians who simply had no access to foodgrain any longer. 

In 1944, a year before the war finally ended, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore invited applications for the newly created post of Lecturer in Food Technology. Sasank Sekhar De, a scientist who had been working on enzymes obtained from snake venom at University College of Science under Calcutta University from 1939-44, applied and was selected for the post. 

A year earlier in 1943, De had first become interested in soy milk as an easy and nutritious food option for children starving during the famine, and had conducted quite a bit of research on it along with his senior colleague Bireshchandra Guha in the Applied Chemistry department. At IISc, he found a similar mentor in V. Subrahmanyan, then head of the Department of Biochemistry. 

Together with the HoD, De worked on a unique programme that not only studied whether soy milk could supplement nutrition in children, but also involved regularly supplying soy milk to thousands of children in Karnataka for about four years.

As World War II wound up, it became clear that India was not producing as much milk as it needed, and malnutrition was a problem not just in Bengal, but across the country. The idea gained ground that substitute milk could be made by blending proteins from different sources, particularly oilseed residues such as soybean and groundnut. 

The late President Pranab Mukherjee launches a mid-day meal scheme at a government school in 2013

The IISc Annual Report of 1944-45 includes the following paragraph: “Although several attempts have been made, in recent years, to popularise the use of soya-bean (sic) in India, much headway has not been made because of inadequate knowledge in regard to the uses of the bean. Soya-bean does not make a good dhal and if merely boiled and used, it has a low digestibility and its protein has a poor biological value. The high nutritive value of the bean, however, stands revealed when the bean is processed to yield a milk. This is a form in which soya-bean is mostly used in China, Japan, America and other countries.”

So extracting soy milk was what De and Subrahmanyan focused on, and while the technical details may prove too complex for the lay reader, suffice it to say that in rat feeding trials, soy milk supported growth at almost the same level as cow’s milk. 

In later studies, De and Subrahmanyan found that the biological value (amount of a protein absorbed by the body) of soybean dal was only 55, while that of the milk was as much as 80. However, soy milk had a digestibility of 92 percent while cow’s milk had 88 percent. In addition, soy milk contained enough B complex vitamins, and could ably supplement a rice diet.

Soon, in an initial study, 129 children aged between a few months and six years were fed either cow’s milk or soy milk. Four-month-old infants did better on soy milk, while older children responded to both milks. Hospital feeding trials were also initiated at Vani Vilas Hospital. 

The Indian Research Fund (now Indian Council of Medical Research), the Department of Food (now Ministry of Food and Agriculture) and the then Military and Civil Station of Bangalore funded a project in which IISc prepared soy milk and carried out animal trials prior to a midday meal scheme for children. 

The nutty flavour of soy milk caused a few initial problems, but the scientists found that this could be partially overcome by fermenting the milk to curd. This tastier form of milk was mixed with rice and fed to children under the programme. In 1945-46, IISc produced 550 lb (about 250 litre) of soy milk a day, the majority of which was converted to curd and mixed with rice to feed 1,600 primary school students.

De and his team didn’t just consider soy milk as beneficial for children. They also suggested it be used in tea and coffee, or to make curd and buttermilk. In 1950, IISc was even asked to conduct feeding trials in the army. Two hundred recruits were fed soy milk, and another two hundred were fed blended milk to evaluate the benefits of including soy milk in army rations. Preliminary results showed improvement in both groups.

Research on soy and other vegetable milks continued in IISc under the Food Technology Section. However, De left in 1951, and after retirement, served as Senior Food and Agricultural Industries Officer for the Food and Agricultural Organisation at the United Nations, based in Thailand.

The ‘Bangalore School Feeding Programme’ which he initiated was the principal precursor of the modern midday meal programme, a pioneering effort which has simply not received the publicity it deserves. 

Information courtesy: Connect, IISc

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