Here is a quote from the Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar recently: "food processing is growing more than agri and manufacturing sectors, turning farmers into entrepreneurs. If there is one sector that has been growing faster than agriculture as well as manufacturing sectors, has the potential to create jobs in the rural areas, bridge the gap between the price paid by the consumer and that received by the farmer and create value addition and earn foreign exchange by export of value-added farm produce, it is the Food Processing Sector," "In addition, this sector does not only remain a bridge between farmers and entrepreneurs, it converts the farmer into an entrepreneur," A well "written" speech containing all the glib words in the dictionary related to food, without actually meaning any thing to millions of people in this poor country, who have been hearing these sentiments during the last 6 decades but nothing happening at the ground level!
Guess when and where such a knowledgeable minister made this grandiose statement? He was speaking after inaugurating National Institute of Food Technology Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM), claiming to be a world-class institution in food processing sector, at Kundli, Haryana. It is imperative for all right thinking persons in this country to ponder on the words uttered by this minister because a look back at the step-motherly attitude shown by successive governments in Delhi ever since the independence of this country, makes the pompous declaration sound hollow. The minister seems to be under the impression that setting up a 5-star bureaucratic institution under the fanciful name of NIFTEM would solve all the problems faced by the food processing industry in this country. For those who have been espousing the cause of food industry during the last 5 decades may wonder whether they should cry or laugh at these ministerial pronouncements with no sincerity and commitment.
It is very true that the food industry has huge potential to be developed in India and there exist formidable challenges in the form of grossly under developed infrastructure, unsatisfactory food quality and safety environment, lack of trained manpower at all levels, lousy food laws, great vulnerability of small scale and micro-enterprises to industrial sickness, uncertain marketing environment and above all government tendency to impose multiple financial levies on food raw materials as well as processed products. The organizers of NIFTEM seem to be in cloud nine, imagining (or self deceiving?) that their pet project would solve all the problems of farmers as well the processing industry! It is sweet to hear from a senior minister of Union Cabinet that NIFTEM would provide a "one-stop solution" to the industry! How can Government of India claim that an infant institution that was just inaugurated would do all the work mandated to it like developing managerial talent, advancement of food science and technology, creation of a repository of knowledge on all facets of food processing, conducting frontier area research, etc, etc, etc for meeting the needs of a huge food industry consisting of millions of micro-enterprises and small industries spread across this vast country?
Has the government of India forgotten the fate of a similar effort way back in 1950 when late C.Rajagopalachari, the first Governor General of independent India inaugurated the currently "limping" Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) at Mysore echoing practically same sentiments as expressed by the Agriculture Minister when he dedicated NIFTEM to the nation recently. With what face GOI will convince the nation that NIFTEM will succeed where CFTRI is supposed to have failed? Has any independent commission or evaluation group ever investigated the cause of the supposed failure of CFTRI? If this was not done what guarantee is there that NIFTEM will not go the same way as CFTRI? Does GOI believe that association with an American University would make NIFTEM a glowing success? Why not understand the basic truth that America cannot solve Indian food industry problems for which only indigenous solution has to be found.
Coming to CFTRI, this august organization had also foreign association with FAO, United Nations University and many other international agencies at one time or the other but still this did not make it an enduring institution in the eyes of citizens as well the industry in the country. Looking back one can only regret for the enormous amounts invested by GOI on it ( Rs 650 million on an average during the lat 3 years alone!), knowing pretty well, especially after 1993 that it had become redundant in the eyes of the users for which it was established. Putting incompetent and inexperienced people with inappropriate qualification and lack of industrial experience at the top during the last two decades seems to have destroyed what ever little credibility it had to justify its continued existence. A vibrant institution, once considered the Mecca of food technology in whole of the Asian continent, it had about 1200 employees with a strong group of food scientists, technologists and engineers which now has dwindled to just 600!. Its regional centers, considered "eyes and ears" of the institute set up to help entrepreneurs in important areas like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh etc were systematically starved of attention and resources and eventually forced to close down which is a tragedy of great proportion. The newly formed Ministry of Food Processing Industry (MFPI) set up at Delhi during early 1990s did very little to prop up CFTRI and now suddenly it wakes up to set up a brand new institution, investing hundreds of crore of rupees, to achieve the very same goals which CFTRI was mandated to do!
No body is holding any brief for CFTRI which has to blame itself, facilitated by its insensitive parent body CSIR, for the sorry state of affairs it is in to day. It all started in early 1990s when a green-horn person with almost zero credentials, imported from the US, was foisted on the organization as the Head and it is history what mess this gentleman created during his short tenure of 3 years, running away before even completing half of his term!. This disaster was followed by another one when an equally unfit person from within the institute was put at the top, over taking 48 senior scientists above him, on considerations other than merit and past track record. This era, considered the darkest in the history of CFTRI, was marked by mindless push for increasing the number of publications of no use to the industry, frenetic chase for filing record number of impractical patents for record purpose, self glorification of the individual at the expense of the organization, deliberate shunning of small industrial entrepreneurs, gross mismanagement, unsustainable attrition rate of good scientists, stink of corruption and malpractices and rapid sliding of the morale of the employees. Though there was a change at the helm of affairs in 2012, it was like jumping from the frying pan to the fire with the new incumbent, probably a well meaning person, who does not have necessary industry background and food science strength, being appointed to lead the organization. Claiming to be a devoted scientist of some repute he seems to have very little comprehension about food technology and hence can do very little to bring the institute from its present state of morbidity. What can the industry expect from such an organization?
NIFTEM cannot be a monument with large sophisticated and architectural building being put up at enormous cost but it needs people with necessary background to run it efficiently. Right now it does not make sense from where NIFTEM is going to get hundreds of trained food experts with adequate experience in food industry working, as there is a severe dearth of such personnel in the country at present. True there are mushrooming universities all over the country offering "courses" for a variety of degrees with "Food" prefixes but most of them are teaching shops, capable of transferring text book information to the entrants, with practically no facilities for hands on practical experience. Even the old training set ups in Mumbai, Kanpur, Kolkatta and to some extent in Nagpur and Ludhiana do not have adequate training infrastructure of high quality and if this is so one can imagine the conditions in other training places located in universities. It is no wonder that the food technology graduates from CFTRI are preferably picked up by the industry as it has still the best infrastructure and experts to churn out reasonably good materials.
This Blogger was, is and will be of the view that setting up NIFTEM was a wrong move on the part of GOI whatever be the political compulsions for such a project. In stead, it would have been far better and effective to rejuvenate CFTRI by bringing in an industry experienced leader in stead of all sorts of people with absolutely no insight about the industry and with limited vision who can only think of irrelevant projects like milk from drumstick leaves or development of non-caloric fats or other nonsensical subjects of no interest to the industry or the farmers or the citizens at large. Re-establishing regional centers in as many states as possible is the need of the hour. Changing the present culture of servicing only large and transnational food companies and barring easy access to the fruits of research for unorganized and small industries as well as new entrepreneurs need to be reversed. Thousands of ethnic foods for which India is renowned must be taken up for "technologizing" their mass production as a priority. There is even justification to make all food technology institutions in the public sector like NIFTEM, DFRL and others in the country as regional arms of CFTRI so that an integrated approach with multipronged thrust for accelerating industry development can be achieved in a holistic way. These centers can have "food business incubators" for helping local entrepreneurs to launch new ventures and provide the much needed escort service to make them really viable.