Monday, December 22, 2008


With very low awareness about the multi disciplinarity of food we consume, most people consider it as essential for survival or sensory pleasure. When it comes to modern foods, western oriented products enjoy high esteem and demand especially amongst the educated classes of consumers but such trends do percolate down to low income groups also for aspiring to be equal. It is a sad situation where Indians themselves do not think much about their own heritage foods, some times even ridiculing these foods. Scientists do not want to take up research on Indian foods, probably apprehending that foreign journals with high citation index potential will not publish them and progress in their career is linked to number of publications they can boast of. During the early stages of development in India, a conscious effort was made by a few well meaning food scientists to work on traditional foods and technologies which existed in India for many years before independence. The early work on rice milling, pulse milling, parboiling, poha making, technologies for ready mixes to make products like idli, dosa, vada etc were indeed laudable. Unfortunately the interest has since waned and very little R & D is evident in this area to day. The traditional foods industry is still unable to stand on its own legs, remains awfully primitive, lack scientific bearings, is confined to micro enterprises level, unattended, unsung as a poor country cousin of the organized food processing sector.
The scorn for desi foods and technologies is reflected early in the second half of 20th century when the diploma programs in fruit and vegetable technology, transplanted from Lyallpur in Pakistan to India was jokingly being referred to as " chutni-putni technology" by those who were doing bachelor degree in food technology! Though this was done in a lighter vein, the underlying feelings of low opinion about the popular chutni preparation are discernible. After all chutni is a  truly Indian product consumed widely though the technology for its preparation was still primitive, almost being an artisan process. So are all the technologies involved in preparing most of the traditional foods of India. In stead of working on these products to bring them on par with western foods, we try to ignore them at our own peril. After all the sweet chutney preparations preserve well because of high sugar content and consequent osmotic pressure. With practically all fruits and vegetables, chutney can be made and the variety of flavors and tastes offered by these products are unparalleled.
The combination of Chutni- Bhaji is a discovery of the manthriji at Delhi, lording over the fortunes of the ministry of food processing industry (MFPI). What is common between these two grandma products is not very clear. One has heard of Poori-Bhaji but not Chutni -Bhaji. Probably the manthriji must have in mind the relatively low status of these two preparations in the hierarchy of foods and used them to express his apprehensions about the unimportance of the ministry as compared to other powerful ministries. The context in which he used this expressions was how his admirers including other ministers, MPs, MLAs ridiculed him when he was allotted the portfolio of MFPI during cabinet formation! It took lot of persuasion by the PM to drill into him the importance of food and its potential for national development, as revealed by the manthriji himself in one of his candid press interactions recently. Imagine the fate of the food industry in this country presided over by a minister who does not have conviction regarding the importance of the portfolio and it is a debating point as to what one can expect from such 'persuaded' ministers. Of course in the present political situations it may not make much of a difference who the minister is since the agenda is mostly set by the established bureaucrats who consider ministers as transit guests vulnerable to their bidding. But the the use of Chutni- Bhaji expression clearly brings out the mindset of people regarding the value of desi foods. How any one can expect MFPI with such an attitude to take up any desi foods for modernization or industrialization? If traditional food industry has been languishing for the last so many years the reason is not too far to seek!  
MFPI was set up in late eighties considering the need to give a boost to food processing industry in the country and ensure value addition to the agri-horticultural produce in order to bring better returns to the growers. As has been highlighted in many forums by the industry as well as the consumers, the ministry never could command the necessary clout that was necessary to make its presence felt amongst the stake holders probably due to pedestrian bureaucrats and politicians steering its destiny during the last two decades. Though the country has made significant progress in the food front in the recent past, it has happened in spite of the ministry and credit must go to the hard working growers and the far sighted processing industry. 

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