Monday, January 24, 2011


Food research and development cannot be done in isolation without consulting with potential users or without being driven by the industry. Sadly in India the scientific community and the industry go parallel, there being no meeting point. The result is a plethora of R & D projects undertaken by universities and public funded institutions with practically no relevance to the user industry or to the society at large. Imagine the waste of public money caused by one of the supposedly national research outfits being headed for long by a person of questionable competence with no clue regarding the needs of the industry, the colossal loss to the country being more than Rs 5 billion during the last one decade. All this organization can show is plenty of multicolored glossy reports containing tall and irrelevant claims. It is well known that however good an army may be, it cannot succeed if led by a General who spends most of his time before a mirror appreciating how handsome he is! Such non-performing systems can probably work only in India where no accountability is demanded and the merry go-around goes on and on!.

It was CSIR which started the ball rolling for its constituent research laboratories to go for funding from external sources including the industry with the avowed objective of pushing them closer to users. There was a time when demands were made by the CSIR on its units to earn as much as 50% of their budget from external sources. Though this is a sound principle it is flawed by the fact that all sectors of industry are not in a position to pay for research and this is especially true regarding the food processing industry predominated by small scale and micro enterprises, spread through out the country. It is another matter that the Heads of some these institutions, clever as they are, wangled out funds from other central agencies which were considered "external" to CSIR!

Except for a few National Laboratories, no industry would be willing to go any where near such institutions which invariably convey the impression that their services are not for charity! It is beyond any body's comprehension as to how a small entrepreneurs, can access technology and technical services, with a few thousands of rupees of his own for investment but with a burning desire to get an industry started? The cost of buying these services is too high if to be obtained from National Laboratories which want to "earn and earn" to meet their collection targets at any cost? Over the years these research monoliths inspire awe and fear amongst the entrepreneurs turning them away from the gates of these moribund organizations.

Since some of the R & D institutions have unique capacity status, they are endowed with some statutory functions and in many cases certificates from GOI agencies can open may locks in the minds of babus vested with "managing"responsibility like exports, imports, pollution control, safety aspects, nutritional labeling etc.and many industries are per se forced to go to these institutions for obtaining such documents. If a dispassionate and impartial inquisition can be made regarding the funds invested by the private sector food industry in genuine research, not for other work like routine analysis in GOI institutions during the last one decade, the real truth may emerge. No doubt it will be practically nil!

It is against this back ground that one hears about funding by a multinational food company in four public-funded national universities for a secret project supposedly for promoting nutritional awareness programs for adolescent school-going girls in government-run village schools. According to scant information available to the public the MNC executed secret agreements regarding the program restraining these institutions from revealing the program content. Why an MNC, known widely for its promotion of commercial infant food products at the expense of breast feeding, is interested in nutrition education in India is beyond any body's comprehension. If such education is imparted truthfully, it can only affect adversely its own brand of products impinging its bottom line! Then what is the real motive in this liberal funding strategy? Probably promotion of its branded products targeted at young future mothers to go for their more "balanced" and "tested"commercial formula than the breast milk. If there are no ulterior motives such funds should made available to research institutions to use them freely to pursue programs as decided by their internal management committees or for improving the R & D infrastructure for better quality research..

There was a time when foreign investments in research required GOI clearance and why such formalities are done away in this case remains baffling. It raises ethical questions regarding the attitude of the scientists involved as they seem to be too keen to serve foreign interests to earn a few bucks. Is there a dearth of funds in this country for education of children? If not why does one need foreign funds? Is it because the investigating team is paid for their time and intellectual output which is not the case if the same projects get GOI funds? The tight veil of secrecy surrounding these projects makes a mockery of the RTI Act as the funding company has inserted a "confidentiality" clause in the agreement barring the scientific personnel involved not to provide any information to any one though the work is being undertaken at facilities created out of tax payers' money!
If the reports appearing in the media are true, GOI must investigate these cases to get to the truth. Suitable guidelines must be evolved in receiving foreign funds for research projects which need to be transparent and favorable to the country. The matter is serious because the facilities built up with public funds and the staff on the roll of GOI cannot serve the interests of foreign companies and a distinction must be made regarding genuine product development work and market promotion activities of controversial nature. As a general guideline foreign funds must be shunned for projects of immense interest to the country when adequate funds are available readily from GOI sources.


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