The rural development "mantra" was on the lips of every politician worth his salt till a few years ago as the national policy of rural upliftment was a top priority for all political parties. Even academia and research agencies were not spared and industries were pressurized for adopting villages for model development. The perception that more than 70% of the country's population lived in more than 0.6 million villages spread over all the states put some urgency in all the programs taken up by the governments at the state and federal levels. Billions of rupees were "spent" in the name of rural development though the results could at best be termed as "scratching the surface" of the Himalayan problem daunting the country. Even to day there are many programs with huge fund flow in different states for improving the living standards of rural people and probably the results are not going to be much different if one goes by the sincerity and intention of the bureaucratic and the political class that control the purse strings.
While the above scenario presents a bleak picture from the national perspective, the food industry pundits, promoters and policy makers have been singing the tune that food processing industry must come up in the rural backyard of the country where food is grown. Such a move was supposed to provide gainful employment to rural folks living in perjury for long due to marginal nature of agriculture. Philosophically this stand is logical because the easily perishable and not so easily perishable agricultural produce would have a better chance to maintain its quality if immediately processed, in stead of transporting to urban areas where most industries tend to locate their manufacturing facilities. But in practice many logistical problems like under developed infrastructure, power availability, personnel shortages, water shortages, etc in most of the rural areas are formidable constraints, especially for big players to locate their factories there.
The proactive policy of various governments extending financial and other favored considerations for setting up rural food industries, especially in backward regions, did not gel and entrepreneurs continued to flock around urban areas with better infrastructure to establish new ventures because of their conviction that projects were more viable and sustainable around urban consumption centers with assured demand. The setting up of the special purpose vehicle, in the shape of Ministry of Food Processing Industries did not change the situation very significantly in spite of massive funds made available to it for developing food industry. Is it the time to throw the towel now and express anguish at nation's inability to harness its agri-horticulture wealth for value addition, generate employment and ensure better returns to the growers who toil hard to raise crops against all odds?
A small program in Kerala, reported recently showed how the Panchayat administrations could be galvanized by an incentive based competition to change their attitude to common man, contains a clue to unlocking the inherent potential of people to demonstrate their capabilities in a succinct way. A collaborative venture between Doordarshan, Department of Local Self Government, State Suchitwa Mission and Center for Development of Imaging Technology, the program has enrolled 200 Panchayats for a competition to win Rs 10 million to be awarded to the most popular one with maximum citizen friendly activities. The way this program being telecast under the "Green Kerala Express" banner on every Friday on DD at Thiruvananthapuram seems to have changed the working style of most of the Panchayats in delivering services to the the citizens in double quick time compared to days and months it used to take for the same service under normal conditions!
If the same approach is used by different states to promote rural food industries at the Panchayat level, it may help entrepreneurs to set up such units with active help from the officials of the Panchayats. It is already known that in each state there are areas of plenty vis-à-vis food material produced locally and based on a master map some Panchayats can be selected for a special program for rural industrialization. Several financial incentives can be offered for those Panchayats achieving certain targets and nurturing the newly established processing units. One of the critical inputs required is the process technology and technical help to the entrepreneurs which will have to come from the District Industries Centers nearby. The Panchayats can even be given financial stakes in new enterprises for their continued involvement and prevent abandoning them after production is stabilized. This is where MFPI can play a vital role through escort service for the Panchayats selected under rural food industry programs. It is time GOI realizes that only rural food industries can provide socour to the farmers in this country though the organized sector may be more visible to the planners at Delhi!