A series of statements and press releases from the officials of the Ministry of Food Processing Industry at Delhi (MFPI) promise the citizens in India that a "world class" research institute focusing on food is scheduled to commence operation from the year 2011 in Haryana. It is indeed a revelation that Government of India (GOI) can set up such an institute single handedly from a scrap and deliver the required services like technological development, machinery design, quality and safety innovations, training of personnel for industry and creation of entrepreneurs. It is true that GOI has plenty of cash to spare to take up such whimsical projects with out much of a botheration about the chances of success in delivering what is intended and promised. That scientific research is a political game in India has been proven several times over and the latest example is the hastily announced food research outfit, fancifully called National Institute of Food Technology, Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM)!
Probably citizens in this country have a right to demand why another food research set up is needed for the country when millions of rupees are being showered on another white elephant working under Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which is a part of Ministry of Science and Technology. Similarly there is another research set up for food under the Ministry of Defense called Defense Food Research Laboratory (DFRL), supposed to be designing foods and technologies for the benefit of the Jawans. Put together these two government funded organizations guzzle up more than Rs 500 million an year with very little out put of significance to show to the country. There are about 300 well qualified food scientists "working" in these two institutions with more than 30% of the posts remaining vacant because of paucity of high quality recruits of some caliber. How the NIFTEM is going to create the critical mass of food scientists in such a short time is probably known only to the minister and the bureaucrats who are running the show. It is forgotten that as a general rule government's role in creative activity cannot succeed as proven by history and NIFTEM is unlikely to be an exception.
Research and development activities are normally planned keeping in view the beneficiaries and it is an unfortunate fact of history that the ultimate user of the fruits of research in the country, the industry, does not seem to be too much concerned about the need for such R & D, being satisfied in getting only "certificates" from such GOI institutions for their survival. A factor which further vitiates the food technology environment in the country is the unaffordable cost of acquiring technologies and technical services from GOI institutions which are increasingly being shunned by the user industry especially in the SME category. If this is so how can their technological base be strengthened? Is the PPP model a better proposition where GOI can make the user industry a partner and a stake holder. It is true that earlier cooperative research strategy mooted 4-5 decades ago did not work satisfactorily due to many reasons but probably under to day's condition PPP many have a better chance of success if planned and designed properly.
Any PPP effort may have to think of roping in large players with financial and technological resources as is being done in Netherlands involving large multinationals in the food industry from Europe as well as many local companies there. Under the banner of TI Food and Nutrition which has become a leading institute guided by the industry, the participating companies combine their power to charter new areas of innovation bringing common benefits to all concerned. The innovation program under the Food and Nutrition Delta (FND) label is funded by a grant of EUR 100 million from the Netherlands government and is supposed to stimulate conversion of strategic knowledge in food science and nutrition into readily usable innovations by the small and medium enterprises. The beauty of this path-breaking effort is that out of 326 companies participating in the FND program more than 80% belong to the SME category. It is known that SMEs may be short of economic resources but they come with many novel ideas which have a better chance of developing into new modes of operation. Government of the Netherlands has been able to assemble a scientific team of more than 300 scientists in running the mother institute IT Food and Nutrition. As the institution is being positioned as an international organization the fruits of its research are likely to percolate to other countries also.