Saturday, August 23, 2008


Research in pursuit of excellence in all fields distinguish achievers from pedestrian performers and this is true in all spheres of science including food science. Scientific pursuit requires intellect, enthusiasm, drive, commitment and hard work. In India there are excellent scientists who have performed well in their chosen fields of work but the output from their research efforts does not seem to be very much relevant to the needs of a nation on the threshold of development to catch up with the years lost under the colonial rule till 1947. Thanks to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, country has built up a reasonably good infrastructure for scientific research under the government aegis supported by public funding. To day the country can boast of a scientific cadre strength that will be the envy of others and 'science' is supposed to be flourishing in agencies like CSIR, DRDO, DAE, ICAR, DST, DBT, Dept of Space Research, and a multitude of Universities spread across the country. It is another matter that these establishments were not able to produce a Noble Laureate since the days of late Sir C V Raman.

In the food area we have over 3000 food scientists working mostly in institutions under CSIR, DRDO, DAE and ICAR and on an average 600-700 research and development projects with investments estimated at more than Rs 200 crore, are undertaken every year with almost 100% public finance. A look back at the achievements of these institutions and asking a single question as to what they have contributed to the industrial and societal developments during the last 6 decades reflect concerns regarding the opportunities lost in taking the country to a strong position in the field of food science and technology vying with top notch nations for a honored place in the world. Baby foods from buffalo milk, energy food for school children, instant mixes for some foods, retort pouch foods, irradiation of Indian foods and many such accomplishments in the past are not to be belittled here. More challenging areas are either ignored or lost sight of resulting in a situation where the food industry is depending more on foreign players to meet their needs to fight obsolescence, making the indigenous R & D establishments more and more irrelevant with each passing day.

Many reasons can be attributed to this decline of the stature of food scientists for which all stake holders have to bear the responsibility. Scientific community in India does not lag behind others intellectually or innovation potentiality but the cash crunch, frustrating working environment, bureaucratic management, uninspiring politically tuned leadership, inverted pyramid like personnel structure and above all suffering from lack of confidence from the industry have made them a non-performing asset. The dismal story unfolds when one surveys the food panorama that exists to day. Extruded foods were made and consumed for ages but the pasta plant and cooker extruders are imported even to day. Vada and roti making equipment come from Taiwan. Flour mills are sourced from Switzerland. Spice cleaning and grinding plants are obtained from Turkey. Efficient and large scale dal mills are still to be imported though dal is a staple in the country. Frying plants with any reasonable control features are not yet being made in the country though we are a major 'snacking' nation. Papads are still made mostly by women manually though it is a unique Indian product consumed for ages here. Are not these the missed opportunities for which scientists have to bear the responsibility squarely though there can be many excuses?

The situation is not helped by the government which has no clue as to what needs to be done in food research. There appears to be more interest in engaging consultants to prepare voluminous reports on pet schemes like mega parks and unimaginative projects with practically no resources allocated for meaningful R & D in foods that are liked and consumed by Indian population. It is foolish to build a super structure without a strong foundation and same holds good in building the industry for which a strong technological foundation is a pre-requisite. Industry is guilty of playing second fiddle to the government by paying obeisance to politician ministers and administrative czars, not forcefully orchestrating its needs and shunning the scientists thereby preempting any bridge between these two well meaning partners. Research efforts must be planned and coordinated with the user agency and the industry, if tangible gains are to be achieved. Unless there is a co-habitation and synergy between them the prevailing chaos are bound to continue and no 'vision' by the government whether for 2025 or 2050 is going to be realized.

As a beginning the gates of the R & D agencies have to be thrown open for attracting entrepreneurs into the imposing concrete buildings where hallowed research is being carried out and to encourage interaction with scientist pioneers for building up mutually respecting relationship, bringing down all the barriers. The present 'patent' hugging managers must be sent home for fostering a culture of secrecy in a sector like food which plays a critical role in the survival of the nation itself. Charmimg words, deceitful claims and pious platitudes are no substitute to ground level tangible achievements that touch the day to day life of the citizens in a meaningful way. Let us start a chapter of solidarity and camaraderie that will include scientists, administrators, entrepreneurs and the industry for regaining the momentum of growth and help the food industry in the country to realize its potential as a sun-rise sector.

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