Tuesday, April 23, 2013


The Paan chewing and cigarette smoking represent distinct cultures of East and West, some thing similar to Roti and bread. One cannot miss the fact that on both cigarettes and bread there are millions of references in literature as they have been extensively studied and researched into by western scientists and there is practically nothing more to know about them. In contrast reluctance of scientists in the East to study these heritage habits has kept them in the dark with very little real time information available on them. Take the example of cigarettes which were implicated beyond a shadow of doubt in cancerous diseases and thousands of deaths have been attributed to smoking of cigarettes. But information is very scanty and unreliable when it comes to paan chewing, except some scattered reports that it can lead to some types of cancers in oral cavity and esophagus.

Betel leaves along with arecanut and slaked lime constitute the classical paan, commonly referred to as 'quid" in literature and chewing it was linked to the history of many countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Solomon Islands, Thailand, Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam and a few other oceanic countries. Probably paan chewing started as a habit among people thousands of years ago though definitive dates are not accurately known. Addition of tobacco to paan was a much later phenomenon and many believe that it is the tobacco component that causes damage to the habitual paan chewers. Betel leaves as such are not considered very dangerous and this leaf has many social, cultural and religious association in different communities in the countries mentioned earlier.

Betel leaves chewing after applying a thin coating of slaked lime generates a reddish color on contact with saliva and it probably constituted the earliest example of women getting the effect, similar to applying lip stick on their lips! It is believed that addition of lime makes the chewed matrix in the mouth alkaline enabling entry into the blood through bilingual absorption.  In some communities this leaf is considered auspicious and forms a part of many ceremonies. In Brahmin community of India any "dhana" or "dakshina" to purohits and holy people must be accompanied by giving betel leaf along with arecanut. Betel leaf and arecanut are also offered after a feast, presumably to freshen the mouth and facilitate digestion of rich foods consumed during the occasion.

According to one report 6 leaves of the Betel vine is equivalent to 300 ml of milk in terms of its vitamin and mineral contents. The leaves, on a fresh weight basis contains about 3% proteins, 1% fat, 3% minerals, 2% dietary fiber, and 0.2% essential oil. The essential oil can be extracted and it has been claimed to be antibacterial, antiprotozoan and antifungal. Interestingly Betel leaves, consumed by about 30 million people in India alone, are claimed to have medicinal properties capable of treating a mutlitude of diseases and ailments that include boils and abscess, conjunctivitis, constipation, head ache, hysteria, itches, mastitis, ring worms, swelling of joints, rheumatism, tooth ache, coughing, asthma etc. When paan is made by incorporating spices like cardamom, saffron, cloves, aniseed, turmeric, mustard, etc its medicinal value gets boosted several fold.

Cultivation of betel wines in India alone is estimated to be in an area of about 55000 hectares, involving about 4-5 lakh families and generating a value of the order of $ 200 million. If the present trend is any indication, consumption of betel leaves is bound to come down over the years causing some hardship to the growers of this leaf, often called the "Green Gold" of India. It is amazing that in a crop like betel leaves, there are many varieties being grown with different eating characteristics and if the direct consumption tends to go down, there must be some other options available to safeguard the interest of the growers and considering that this leaf by itself is never implicated in any adverse health episodes, its beneficial value must be exploited. Oleoresin extraction technology offers a ready route for exploiting the value of betel leaf essential oil and an agency like ICMR must take up in-depth studies on the real value of the constituents present in betel leaf.

Arecanut contains the alkaloid aricolene and there is a view that people with heart problem must not consume. Interestingly arecanut has a fat which is saturated in nature with high melting point and suggestions are made to use refined arecanut fat as a cocoa butter substitute though there are no takers so far for making chocolate with areca fat. The modern version of paan, Gutka is a combination of tobacco and arecanut with a few other ingredients and it is widely being consumed in India. Presently under the Indian food laws Gutka making and sale have been banned officially though it is still available in many parts of the country. One of the most nauseating social fall out of paan chewing is that most consumers do not swallow the masticated juice and in stead spit it indiscriminately in public places causing severe civic problems in many metropolitan areas. Many civic bodies and agencies have banned paan chewing in public like cigarette smoking.  


Sunday, April 21, 2013


Food industry in India is so widely scattered that except for a few large manufacturers, most others function under anonymity with least exposure to development organizations wishing to help them. Also true is the fact that majority of food industry is confined to the micro and small scale sector eking out a living through their low production base. Whether it is technology, finance or policy support they are the orphans of the food sector but still they survive just because of their extra ordinary sense of entrepreneurship, persistence and perseverance and limited ambition. On hand this may sound dismal but looking from a positive angle, this sector of industry provides the greatest potential for national economical growth provided there is a revisit on the part of the government regarding their precise needs and desirable ways they can be addressed.

Food industry in India is in an unfortunate situation as there is no agency in the country which can provide new entrepreneurs with the most critical input for organizing production, viz the technological means. Of course on paper there are several public funded technological organizations funded by the state and central governments including universities supposed to be doing R & D in food processing and allied activities but the ground reality is that not even a single such institution is of any use under the prevailing conditions, most of them unwilling to entertain small entrepreneurs for providing the critical requirement of process technology and project conception. It is a contradiction that the very industry these institutions want to court, viz the large scale manufacturers are least interested in buying any technology from them due to a number of reasons, least of which is the unreliability and lack of confidentiality so necessary in a competitive market place. Khadi and Village Industry Commission and its state Boards have become irrelevant long back after the shift of government priority from small industries to mega players, both domestic as well as international.

Assuming that an entrepreneur is able to access to the needed technology, the next important input is trained personnel and the most practical route is to pinch one of the experienced personnel from his competitor. To day's food technology training programs in the country are tuning out elites for the benefit of large industry where remuneration varies from Rs 20,000 to 50,000 for a food technologist coming out of the university with very little skill and resources needed to manage a processing unit. Of course those fully "trained" technologists are put through the production drill and skills are horned further by the employers. Can a small industry in food processing afford such graduates at such high costs? For argument sake it can be said that food related courses are now being offered in almost all universities with varying syllabus but having no facilities for real hands-on training that is so vital to inject the practical skills. There used to be some Industry Training Institutes where food technology courses were being offered conferring a diploma degree but it is not known whether these course are still an option for those aspiring to enter food industry.

It is not that government is not aware of the need for skilled people to work in various sectors because according Indian Government's own projections the country may need about 5 million such personnel to work on the shop floors of different industrial units. Probably this realization has persuaded the government to launch its much thought out Vocational Training Centers (VTP) under its Modular Employable Program (MES) scheme which has proved to be a popular skill upgrading tool. According to the web site of the Ministry of Labor and Employment there are about 7125 such VTP units spread across the country in more than 1400 skill categories. The budget provision which was a meager Rs 220 crore last year was increased to Rs 700 crore this year. Though many semi skilled workers undergoing the training do get jobs with out such training, with the certificate of training provided, their skill level is supposed to be upgraded, attracting better quality employment by the industry concerned.

In spite of all the draw backs associated with all government schemes, this particular one, VTP deserves full appreciation because it fulfills a need and increases the employability of those with no formal education or very little education. It is not known whether food processing is in the list of skills for which VTPs are in existence. Even if exists it might be relatively few in number and therefore government must consider including all vocations associated with handling and processing of foods. If the main stream food industry can be roped in for in-plant training facilities for these skill upgraded personnel there is nothing like that! Small scale food processing units in this country, millions in number, will be ever grateful for such a change in the existing MES program.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


In India cast iron cookwares are common even to day as most of the traditional foods are prepared using them. They come in different shapes and sizes and are usually preferred for high temperature cooking like frying. It is only recently that stainless steel or more commonly known as "ever silver" caught the imagination of house wives in the country as they are more easily cleanable after use. The good news is that cast iron cookwares are staging a come back even in a country like the US where Teflon coated steel and aluminum cookwares had replaced it in early 1960s. Obviously consumers have discovered or re-invented the advantages of skillets, pots and other vessels over the modern ones. Probably late realization that use of Teflon coated cookwares does pose significant health risks might have been one of the reasons for the revival of interest in cast its iron based counterparts. 

Another reason for the increased interest in cast iron cookwares may be the quality of heat delivered during heating where better heat dissipation and retention are seen compared to the cooking vessel presently in vogue. While Teflon is widely used for creating a non-sticky surface currently, cast iron skillets and others use coconut oil, lard or grease to season them and make the surface non-sticky. It is also possible that once high temperatures are reached there is practically no hot spots in these cookwares which will ensure uniform cooking or frying. Two of the most widely used cast iron utensils in India are skillets for making dosa type of products and pans for frying of many products. 

Use of cast iron dates back to fifth century BC when this was the preferred material for making warfare weapons, agriculture and architecture. Use of this material for making cookwares started much later, probably during the middle of 19th century, when cast iron cauldrons, cooking pots and other paraphernalia appeared in the kitchen. They became widely popular during the first half of 20th century. Enamel coated cast iron products entered the scene offering a better alternative to the crude looking cast iron pots and vessels. Since manufacture of cast iron cookwares started declining in many countries due to declining interest, availability of the same is somewhat limited. Also to be noted is that depending on the type of foods cooked elemental iron or iron compounds can be leached out in significant quantities into the food though there are no adverse findings regarding the effect of such leaching. More the moisture or the acidity of the foods cooked, higher will be the leaching effect. Though iron is an essential micro nutrient critically associated with many metabolic activities in the body, especially in blood regeneration, elemental iron and inorganic iron compounds are not biologically useful, the body not being able to absorb them into the blood from the GI tract. 

Cast iron is made by melting the metal at high temperatures and pouring the molten mass into sand molds of desired shape and size. While some manufacturers subject them to polishing through the grinding process, most utensils are not polished as the surface of the latter, being extremely grainy due to the sand mold used, seasons better and uniformly providing a better barrier against rusting. Even unpolished cast iron utensils become smooth over a long period of use and there fore polishing is less frequently resorted to at the manufacturer's level. Once the cookware is cast it is seasoned for arresting the corrosion with the oil getting polymerized providing a hard layer  on the surface. If properly cared for cast iron utensils last for ever! In a country like the US cast iron skillets, griddles and ovens are reported to be becoming popular because of their better heating qualities and lower prices. In India even to day most house holds use cast iron skillets for making dosa type preparations and appams. Though considered old fashioned, cast iron definitely offers a superior option to house wives and it is a fact that not much efforts are being made in India to take up research in this area for improving the design and performance. This is an area where a national food research institution like the CFTRI or DFRL at Mysore can do much with their strong food engineering groups. 

Use of cast iron skillets for preparing dosa and other preparations requires skill and experience that differentiates old timer grandmas from modern house wives. Unless right amount of heat is applied, dosa making can make any body's life miserable with the product refusing to come out of the pan in one piece. There are local techniques like rubbing salt on the hot surface and/or applying oil and/ or water before spreading the batter uniformly. Modern day stoves fueled by LPG seem to have a tendency to heat the skillet non-uniformly but with a little bit of patience the hot skillet gets heated up uniformly with good result. Imagine the patience grandmas used to have heating the skillet on wood fired hearths where temperature control is next to impossible. Even then to day's house wives, in spite of all modern gadgetry can hardly come any where near the former when it comes to using such skillets. Using cast iron pans for deep frying or shallow frying is relatively easier though one has to be careful not to reach flash point due to high temperature rise that can cause a disaster! 


Friday, April 12, 2013


Conceded water is a scarce commodity on which future wars are going to be fought but using this scarce material for enriching the pockets of large industry players is really reprehensible. This is what is happening in India at present. Look at the situation in Maharashtra where a shameless Minister, after diverting millions of liters of water meant for irrigation from dams built with pubic money to the sugar mills, wineries and distilleries, that too through dedicated pipe lines extending to 300 km installed at government expense! On top of it he had the cheek to mock at the farmers who demanded water by asking them whether he should urinate into the dams for replenishing the water in them! No wonder the state of Maharashtra has the dubious distinction of becoming the capital of farmer suicides!
India will be condemned as a country with least sensitivity to the sufferings of its citizens because of its elitist policy which always put he needs of the rich and the influential above the interests of its common man. Water use policy pursued by many states gives priority to industry while drinking water and irrigation get lower priority. Why this paranoid is a big mystery though one can guess that the most politicians are in league with industry captains with liberal financial support for their elections which are becoming more and expensive day by day! By any stretch of imagination GOI cannot be said to be starved of funds if one looks at the profligacy in spending on various populist schemes with very little asset building potential. As for farmers, the backbone of India's food security, they are in a blind, caught between the deep sea and the devil, no where to go but commit suicide. It is a miracle that India is still one of the top food producing nations of the world! Why? The reason is not far to seek. Do the farmers have any choice at all as to whether he should grow some thing to sustain himself or leave the land fallow which is a right recipe for ruination.  But for the rains with which the country is blessed with most of the times, the food situation would have been a different story.   
Coming to water which is a natural source abundantly available in this planet who has the right to sell it and make money? One can understand if water is to be processed using costly equipment like Reverse Osmosis or distillation involving some expenditure which works out to a few paise per liter and charging nominally for this may be justifiable. But how can the industry justify selling the water in a country like India at a price which ranges from Rs 20 per liter? Is it not exploitation of the helpless situation under which the people live? Shirking of responsibility of good governance by practically every civic agency in the country has led to massive scarcity of drinking water in the country and the citizens with grave fear about water borne diseases like jaundice  are forced to buy the exorbitantly priced bottled water from the "water shylocks" ruling the roost, to protect the lives of themselves and their families with the government looking happily from the sidelines!
It was not long ago that a multi national company in Kerala had to wind up its business there because of severe over exploitation of the local water resources depriving the local population of this precious life sustaining material. No lesson seems to have been learned from this episode and water continues to be misappropriated by the industry with the connivance of the bureaucracy and politicians. It is true that when governments invite investors, domestic as well as global, to invest in the country, they have a duty to ensure industry friendly atmosphere and workable environment for setting up processing plants. Where were the governments during the last 3 decades when urgent action was required to be taken to establish infrastructural facilities for agriculture, industry and the citizens? In stead of splurging billions of rupees on populist schemes, the same should have been invested on projects on drinking water, irrigation, power generation, roads, railways and ports on a war footing. What is happening now is nothing but a fire fighting operation which may turn out to be too late and to little.
While multinational companies can be faulted for starving the country of water to some extent, how about the desi companies who also are indulging in exploitation of scarce water for profiteering? There are thousands of water bottling units in the country flourishing, especially in urban areas where the so called protected water supply system is a sham with no sensible citizen trusting its safety. Governments must be held responsible in making water a commercial commodity due to their lethargy, inefficiency and inaction in providing the population with safe drinking water and thus shirked the responsibility cast on them.
Is it not a tragedy that even a swadeshi company like Tatas could not resist the temptation to make a fast buck through exploitation of consumer helplessness, if recent reports are to be believed of their plans to invest in packaged water industry?  This industrial giant spanning the country is joining one of the MNCs to set up a joint venture for marketing purified water for the domestic market! The new company seems to be planning to launch its own brand of bottled water soon with franchising as an option to spread their tentacles and gobble up a significant market share in bottled water segment, estimated to be valued at Rs 2000 crore. According to Tatas the market for water is under-penetrated and and is expected to grow at about 20 per cent CAGR per annum in the country.The moot question is whether this domestic conglomerate can be faulted for falling to the temptation of capitalizing on the water scarcity in the country? Probably the enormous annual returns exceeding 100% of the investment may be too attractive to be ignored though it would be at the expense of their conscience!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Is India becoming a laughing stock among the comity of nations that constitute global society? If not already the butt of the joke internationally, it might soon be because it is literally trapped between the proverbial "Deep sea and the Devil" Why is that this country thinks about only immediate problems in stead of focusing on long term planning? There is a high profile National Planning Commission (NPC) which keeps its high profile only among the media people and in any walk of life in India NPC's foot prints are hardly perceptible which makes the common man wonder whether the country would be better of with out such a high powered body becoming a drag on the public exchequer. The provocation for this critical blog piece is the charade going on in a place called Delhi where the most favorite game is called "passing the bucks"! This is with reference to the crisis created by the political-bureaucratic mess in managing food production and stocking during the last one decade. To day with a bumper production on hand every one is running around asking the same question "what to do" now.

It is a tribute to the suicide prone Indian farmers that they did not fail the country in spite of wide spread poverty and hardship in raising production consistently and provide ample food to those not involved in agricultural avocation. It is another matter that the price gap between farm gate and retail market keeps widening with each passing day with the spineless governments watching helplessly from the side line, the beneficiaries being the so called middle men who call the shots in the market place. It is really frustrating for the common man to see the prices of food grains jumping by 50% during the last 3 months while government spokes persons are shouting from the roof top about bumper production this year! According to dispassionate observers, India, world's No 2 wheat producer, is anticipating a bumper harvest this year and procurement operations are about to start all over the country. The pathetic side of the story is that food grains that will be procured during the season will have no place to go as the ware house capacity in the country is woefully inadequate for the purpose. Even at a liberal estimate the "orphaned grains" with no roof over it for protection would be adequate to feed almost half the population of the country for an year!. 

What will be the strategy, if at all one is there, to manage the impending grain mountain without allowing the Supreme Court again to intervene for forcing government hands? Apparently the matter is still under "consideration" and if the past is any indication any decision taken will be too less and much delayed! Repeating the claim that the GOI has already accorded permission to export 4.5 million tons makes little sense as this quantum is a minuscule part of the surplus grains this year. Inspired reports suggest that GOI is deliberating whether to allow another 5 million tons for export. Why such prevarication on the part of GOI is difficult to comprehend though next year's general election could be a critical factor to be factored in such a decision. In other words for the GOI political interests are far more important than the welfare interests of the country! Some times one gets the impression that a soft bellied country like India which kneels before all and sundry is a prisoner in the hands of super wealthy nations and business conglomerates who are worried that global market will become unstable if India off loads large quantities of food grains in the international market! Should such considerations weigh heavily in taking right decisions in the larger interests of the country?     

It is true that better harvests are expected from top grain producers like Australia, the United States and the Black Sea countries and if every country comes to the global market there will be a depression in market prices. it would put further pressure on global prices. Recent reports do suggest that wheat prices fell to an eight-month low a few days ago because of heavy speculation about better outlook for crops in the US. But should India be unduly concerned about such manipulated market perceptions? With the value of rupee at an all time low, realization to the Indian exporter in rupee terms would still be adequate to gain enough margins based on large volume export. Why not target the exports to poor countries in Africa where the populations there would be ever grateful if low cost grains are made available to them? Why not India indulge in long term treaties with these countries for delayed payments so that the surplus grains find use among those who really need them, where ever they are, in stead of rotting in the open?  

Another difficult decision this nation may face is how to go about exporting the grains to distant lands? If logistics experts are to be believed, shifting huge volumes of grains within India is going to be a nightmare and probably unthinkable at this point of time.  Assuming that adequate carrying capacity is created on an emergency basis in railways and private road transport sector, what about the existing capacity of the ports through which the exports are to be effected?  Imagine the strain on these ports, already choking under the load of merchandise waiting to be shipped, if additional demands are made on them, during June-July period! Grain stocks with the government are expected to exceed 100 million tons while the present storage capacity is hardly sufficient to hold 50% of it! What can happen then is any body's guess. According to the grandiose "plan" of GOI, the storage capacity for grains, railway freight capacity and port handling capacity are to be raised "substantially" "soon". How soon it can be? By 2017! In the mean time what is going to happen to the grains in governments hands under monsoon rains during July-September which can really soak them beyond any use?! 
It appears ships are waiting for months together in the seas near almost all east coast ports for want of berthing facilities and how can the surplus grains be exported. Air lifting is not a choice as it will be highly cost-ineffective besides being impractical under the present conditions obtaining in India. If India had good relations with countries like Pakistan and other countries road transport would have been one of the options but here again how far private carriers will be willing to do this is a big question. The proposed food security bill still not enacted could have absorbed a significant portion of the grains in stock but no one knows when this is going to happen. Government of India can never be pardoned for its lackadaisical policies of the past and delays in decision making for the sorry pass this country has come to as far as food storage is concerned!  

Some times economic prosperity can be a curse for a country with unimaginative and unresponsive governments which cannot see any thing beyond its nose! India boasting to be the third largest economy in Asia is teeming with population with more disposal income in their hands clamoring for all types of modern luxury goods which are to be imported through the same limited infrastructure. Besides the perennial scarcity of legumes and cooking oils tie up a substantial portion of the infrastructure almost on a permanent basis. The record current account deficit  is posing yet another crisis for the GOI and export of all types is the need of the hour. Under these circumstances is not the GOI in a catche 22 situation with a "Hobsons Choice"? With the election bell ringing, the present federal dispensation may be too happy to be voted out in the coming general election, leaving the messy job to be handled by the new government! 


Monday, April 8, 2013


Encouraging establishment of food industries is always a daunting task. Even under the best of conditions, an industry will sprout only if there is adequate entrepreneurship among people. India is not a country with dearth of entrepreneurs having necessary motivation and drive and still the food processing sector lags behind with only those with deep pockets succeeding in establishing viable processing units, that too in some parts of the country. Naturally the question that begs for an answer is why this sorry situation in the country?

It is known that for viable industries to come up, it requires existence of a multifaceted environment which is a pre-requisite. While entrepreneurship is necessary among the people, other inputs like technical support, policy support, marketing experience and financial strength are absolutely necessary. If Indian past is considered Indians are entrepreneur-wise a capable people and the vast number of micro enterprises in sectors like food processing working across the country even without any prop from the government, though not most efficiently,  is a standing testimony to this truth. It is another matter that after unleashing the forces of economic liberalization or promoting capitalism since last two decades, big industrial players seem to be destroying the smaller players for getting market dominance. Where is the much cherished Khadi and Village Industries Commission supported manufacturing enterprises to day? Practically vanished. Why?

Reasons are not far to seek. First and foremost the food entrepreneurship is being smothered in the country due to technology starvation as new entrepreneurs brimming with business ideas have no where to go to seek the basic need of a venture, viz the manufacturing technology for establishing a viable production unit. Though there are more than 800 District Industry Centers (DICs) in practically every district in the country, they have been neglected, especially during the last two decades with most of them languishing as non-functional entities. Another equally important issue is the government support, rather lack of it at present, that is vital for success of any industry. Whether it is Ministry of Food Processing Industry (MFPI) in New Delhi or the State Food Industry Departments, the typical "Babu" approach and an inertia laden mindset, very little ground level help is forth coming to propel the entrepreneurial community. Added to this the draconian measures under the new heavily bureaucratized show piece of GOI viz The Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI) have a chilling impact on new entrepreneurs.

What is tragic is that with a special purpose vehicle (SPV) like MFPI set up by the GOI as early as 1989-90 and with vast funds available at its disposal for bringing in a revolution in the food processing sector, it has unfortunately become a tightfisted book keeper. Those who sought funds from MFPI know the back breaking job of actually realizing the grant due to time consuming procedures and bureaucratic interference. Though MFPI is to be lauded for some of its schemes which appear excellent at least on paper, the fact that it is not able to disburse the budgeted funds fully year after year tells the real story. For example who can find fault with its much acclaimed National Mission for Food Processing (NMFP) where in it can extent up to Rs 10 crore for new enterprises setting up cold chains and cold storage units as a subsidy? Still why not much enthusiasm is seen among the prospective entrepreneurs in tapping this source of funding?

As said earlier money alone cannot sustain an industry. What is critical is technology without which entrepreneurs cannot even plan a project in food processing. For multinational companies they have the wherewithal to access technology from their own parent companies or from global sources by investing large sums of money. What about the micro enterprises and small companies? Where will they go? The domestic technology sources supported by public funds do not even allow these "chota" people even entering their "palaces" or "ivory towers", let alone help them with technologies and technical inputs. There are no incubation centers in food sector in India unlike in many other countries as GOI did not bother to finance such centers in Universities or industry corridors during the last several decades of neglect of this vital sector.

It is time that GOI wakes up to this reality and do some introspection regarding the lacunae in the system. Opening a NIFTEM or calling other existing moribund public funded R & D organizations by other fancy names does not solve the problem. There has to be a vibrant technology generating system that will ensure continuous development of efficient small scale technologies for new industries as well for the existing industry for upgrading their operations which can only revive the food entrepreneurship in India.