The debate concerning Man vs Machine is an age-old one with supporters on each side justifying their stand. Needless to say that machine based processes invariably outscore those involving heavy manual dependence when it comes to productivity. In the case of food processing there is the additional factor of hygiene that has a heavy bearing on the safety of the final product. Those countries like India with heavy unemployment and millions on the employment exchange rolls, employment generation has been the mantra all the way but here also it is increasingly being realized that appropriate equipment, even if they are not fully automated will have to take over some of the tasks being performed by humans as there is scarcity of people willing to work in food processing industry, if they can help. Besides the operation of GOI programs like NRGE which assures 100 days of work for every person, especially during non-agricultural season make it difficult for the food industry to attract quality and quantity of people required.
There is another dimension to the "man vs machine" issue that involves suitability of equipment available for making many foods which are of Indian origin. It will be easier for those in the food sector engaged in manufacture of western foods like bread, biscuits, confectionery etc to find suitable equipment with assured performance and endurance guarantees in India itself or can be accessed from foreign manufacturers. There are thousands of products of importance in India which are prepared at millions of households in different societies and ethnic groups spread across the country but their transition from home scale level to industrial scale has been rather slow. Though seminars, workshops, conferences and conventions are held frequently to debate the need for taking up organized scientific studies on at least some popular traditional foods and their preparing processes, unfortunately nothing much has happened during the last 3 decades which is really shameful for the industry, government and the food scientists.
Ministry of Food Processing Industry of Government of India, set up with great hype during late Rajiv Gandhi's regime has failed abysmally in galvanizing research and development in this sector in spite of enormous funds, running to hundreds of millions of rupees, for investment at its disposal. If some thing has been done with regard to these ethnic foods, credit goes to Pre-1990 CFTRI and DFRL at Mysore and many Instant Mixes, Retorted Foods and some of the equipment for making Idli, Dosa and Roti have all originated from theses institutions. It is another matter that post-1994 regimes in these institutions could not see any thing beyond their nose, let alone a long term distant vision! Referring specifically to equipment and machinery even those designed by these research institutions fell far short of expectations of the industry as well as the consumer. This is because of total lack of linkages that existed between the market-savvy industry and "cocooned" scientists having no real view about the need of the market. As for Universities, engaged as they are with "degree-awarding" research very little can be expected from them. Under these circumstances what are the chances of achieving some renaissance vis-a-vis these foods?
The above thoughts occurred to this Blogger while reading a recent report about a new approach being tried out in Western countries to persuade the machinery industry to link up with the University or a research institutions by donating a piece of their latest machinery free of cost so that the scientists are exposed to a multitude of latest equipment spurring them towards further innovation. It is a mutually inclusive arrangement whereby the donor gets almost free promotion of its name while trainees and teaching faculty get to know about "state of the art" developments in the fabrication sector. For example there is an urgent need for design and fabrication of a Laddu making machine for the famous Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh and a Neyyappam making unit for the Sabarimala temple in Kerala and why it has not been possible for the developmental food scientists have not been able to come out with a workable models so far? Similarly the popular "aravana payasam" of Sabarimala and the "panchamrutham" of Palani Temple, are even to day canned where as the Tetrapack's HTST technology would have been more appropriate for their long life safety. Why should the Voltas be peddling Taiwan made machines for making Indian Parothas, Vadas, Bondas, Samosas etc though Taiwanese are not known to have any affinity for these foods?
As long as patent protection system is in vogue in India as per WTO protocols, the food machinery industry should not have hesitation in parking their wares in such agencies and it is possible that such an initiative may spark hundreds of local innovations that can benefit many traditional food makers. Almost all manufacturers of ethnic foods have to restrict themselves to small scale batch operations which tell on the quality and safety of the final product. Whether it is making Khoa or Paneer or Chhakka from milk, or Chikki products based mainly on groundnuts or the mouth watering Soan Papadi or the much sought after Jilebi or the famous Mysorepak of the South or hundreds of other products that tickle the palate of millions of consumers, the story is the same and that is to make them by artisans squatting on the floor and making hardly 2-5 kg per batch! Is it not ridiculous that the food scientists are not even trying to cross fertilize ideas from other equipment predominant manufacturing industry sectors to explore the technical feasibility of adapting some of them for mechanizing at least a few of the unit operations involved for the ethnic food industry?
It is tragic that the traditional foods are a group of products orphaned by the absence of any interest amongst Indians themselves who probably expect that salvation has to come from outside, from countries like Taiwan, Korea etc. If there were some sense of pride, patriotism and loyalty to the country amongst the food industry planners, managers and the scientific community, such a sorry situation would not have come to pass!