Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Blah, Blah, Blah and more Blah! "Platitudes" and "Exhortations" on food industry do not achieve any thing, concrete action does!

If there is any proof needed that nothing changes in the country who ever is the ruling elite, what one has to do is to follow the "talking circuit", a sort of circus organized frequently by organizations supposedly to highlight the problems faced by the industry. On a conservative estimate there must have been at least 1000 seminars, conferences, workshops, meetings, get-togethers and lectures conducted on food industry development in India during the last 50 years. If a balance sheet is to be prepared regarding the input-output from these worthless exercises probably nothing much can be shown on the out put side. Food industry, as we see to day has grown to the present level not because of these talking extravaganza by academic pundits, often supported by industry but in spite of them! That government ignores them is a bitter truth every body knows. The plea pending for almost 5 decades for abolishing or reducing incidence of taxes on food has never reached the rulers and even if it has reached it is not given any serious consideration. It is not surprising therefore to hear this plea repeated by the industry in a recent "seminar", graced by that "innocent" minister in charge of the food industry portfolio in Delhi, to reduce taxes under the new proposed GST regime to 4% from the present 20%!

 If any statement a minister makes that must receive a "nobel prize" is the recent exhortation by the minister in the agricultural ministry who pompously declared that private sector must make food affordable to masses as if government has been doing this all along! Listen to what he said: "The government is pushing for greater participation from the private sector to make food affordable to masses. Mohanbhai Kalyanji bhai Kundariya, Minister of State (Agriculture) addressing the 4th CII National Conference on AgriBiotechnology on Tuesday said that the role of private players is extremely important in bringing quality and affordable food to our growing population and that the government would work to provide better crop prices to farmers, remove trade barriers and support technologies that are environment friendly.  He said, "Our Government under the leadership of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi is committed to working with industry leaders to bring about a revolution in the agricultural sector in India. We will discuss the various issues and challenges around agriculture, agri-biotechnology and other related areas raised during today's conference and come up with measures to provide an impetus to the sector." Stressing on the importance of producing more from the available land and water, Mr. Kundariya said, "Technology, like agri-biotechnology, if used intelligently will play an important role in improving our agricultural output especially in the light of our limited land and water resources which are reducing day by day. " Really?

To add insult to injury the organizers of the conference says that  "Kundariya absorbed the key challenges and issues in the agri-biotech sector raised by the various presenters, a CII release said. According to CII, the Conference started with highlighting the emerging context and major issues such as Sustainability, Innovation & Technology, limitations — both economical and ecological — of the tools used currently in agriculture along with climate change and food inflation and food quality and others. The first day of the conference witnessed eminent personalities from government, industry, institutions and associations who deliberated key issues. An interesting mix of topics including sustainable resource use — challenges and answers, lab to field — successfully reaping benefits and resolving farmer & consumers challenges — role of biotechnology were discussed at length during the first day of the conference. the release said. The opening session of the conference was presided by Ashwin Shroff, Co-Chairman, CII National Conference on Biotechnology & Chairman and MD, Excel Industries Ltd." What next?

What is all the more galling is the audacity of the minister to make such an exhortation in the presence of many industry captains who swallowed it silently, true to the typical sycophancy culture in this country. One wonders when did the industry become a charitable group selling their products without any profit in mind for them to practice what the minister said, probably without realizing the implications of his words! As a photo-op event such programs make sense with the high profile electronic media grabbing such news for serving their innocent listeners. The above seminar talked about innovation and technology and it is difficult to understand what they really want. This very same food industry has made almost all R & D institutions in foods in the country irrelevant by looking outwards for acquisition of foreign technologies while their own R & D facilities are neither existing nor have the necessary critical mass. What is not understood or appreciated is that more than two thirds of the food market is controlled by the so called unorganized industrial units about which no body seems to care and who may be receptive to adoption of locally developed technologies but they are denied access to the few technology institutions in the country funded by the government putting severe restrictions on their access to such places and charging exorbitant charges to buy technologies from there. 

It is rather pathetic that no single stake holder in the development of food industry really understands what is really needed to take the industry on a high projectile growth path and the sacrifice necessary to achieve this. With a fragmented agricultural sector predominated by small land holders the processing industry can never hope to achieve any dramatic growth rate in the foreseeable future and no seminar or conference can achieve this! Unless land consolidation takes place on a priority consideration organized industry will find it difficult to grow fast and play its rightful role in economic upliftment of the nation. The much hated APMC Act has not yet been repealed which gives agents and touts predominance in the produce selling market yards across the country denying genuine processors access to their feedstocks. Utter neglect of infrastructure and communication facilities so vital for food processing sector by successive governments can never be pardoned by future generation sitting over judgement over our actions and inactions. The sorry spectacle of the ministry of food processing industry in blaring about its food park program, none of which has emerged as a game changer so far, during the last 15 years, can only dim the hope of the citizen about our future. Another bureaucratic set up under the government aegis entrusted with the task of "over seeing" the country's sputtering food safety regime is busy running around the country breathing down the neck of one and all who make food to kneel before them and take their "license" for operation in the country!

If one takes a close look at the products now in Indian market, most of them from multinational firms and large manufacturers, cater to the well to do consumers and these include breakfast products, soft drinks, aseptic packed milk packets, high cost chocolate items, costly dairy products, etc all of them costing beyond Rs 150 per kg. Where does the common man fit into this scenario? Even if those members of CII reduce the prices of their products will it become a "food for masses"? The newly elected government which is firmly in the saddle must make a clean break from the past and overhaul the entire system from farm to the fork with necessary reforms that can signal a revival of the food processing industry in the country.

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