Sunday, November 30, 2014

Reinventing the wheel-Food technology research in India reaches its"Nadir"?

India is known to be a laggard when it comes to spending on scientific and technological research that can contribute to over all development of the country. While a country like USA annually spends over $ 400 billion (bn) on research activities Indian spend is hardly $ 24 bn. Even our neighbor China spends about $ 200 bn annually on scientific research which is linked closely to its rapid economic growth. According to Indian government documents, the country wants to spend Rs 90, 000 crore during the 12th Plan period (2014-19) on scientific research in different sectors or 18, 000 crore per year. This is a lot of money and if spent appropriately can show very tangible results. Unfortunately except for Space Department and  Atomic Energy Sector nothing much can be show cased as the achievements of the various scientific research organizations in the country. Crying for more funds does not make any sense when even the existing allocations are not effectively used for innovations and developments that benefit the nation as a whole.

Talking specifically the food research, there are no reliable data pertaining to research in food processing sector. If agriculture is taken to mean food also, it is reported that the country spends about 0.4% of the value of agricultural inputs on research activities and this works out roughly to about Rs 15000 crore. Of this direct spend on production and productivity research could be as high as 90% leaving behind about Rs 1500 crore on food research. R & D agencies that vie for a pie in this spend include CFTRI, DFRL, NIFTEM, and institutions supported by Food processing ministry, Dept of Science, Dept of Biotechnology, Atomic Energy Commission, Universities and others. Probably no one gets the minimum critical inputs necessary to make any break through innovations of high value.

Having seen this scenario is it not incumbent upon those organizations from which lot is expected to optimize their research activities to create maximum impact in stead of squandering them over flimsy projects, many of them with no relevance to the needs of the country and often on "personalized" whims and fancies. Indian food industry which meets the domestic processed food needs of population with an estimated value of over Rs 1,50, 000 crore is claimed to employs about 48 million people. There are about 36000 registered units as reported by one of the government agencies, though one  in not sure about the accuracy of such statistics routinely doled out from government sources. Another dimension to this is that only 25% of industrial out put is attributed to the organized industry, mostly branded products, while the unorganized and small scale players contribute 42% and 33% respectively. Naturally it is the small players and unorganized sector units which require technical support for strengthening their production base and for starting new ventures while the organized sector has the wherewithal to acquire technological assistance from foreign sources. Have the domestic R & D agencies walloping huge resources from the public treasury fulfilled their duty to the Indian food industry during their existence over the last 7 decades?  Well, this does not seem to be happening with food technology research in India at present.

A typical case is a recent claim by one of the premier food research organizations in the country regarding development of an "improved"  process for turmeric at the farm level which is nothing but a rehash of same work carried out almost 5 decades ago and widely practiced by many farmers in the country. The same organization is talking about use of cow dung, lead vessels, use of chromates for color enhancement during traditional processing of this rhizome, etc which were all issues dealt with earlier in the same set up by scientists who have retired long ago. During the last 3 decades same thing has been happening with recycled research thrown at the public as new development which appears to be the strong point of this R& D organization. It is a tragedy that this organization must have spent by a conservative estimate more than Rs 1000 crore during this period! No wonder neither the farmer nor the food industry is too much bothered to even recognize its existence let alone seeking its help in solving their problems. 

Government is repeating the same mistake by setting more such public funded R & D organizations without insisting on their effective linkage with user industries and seeking accountability for the money spent by them. It is not realized by those in power that no big industry will be interested in free wheeling research in isolation within the four walls of a research organization as most of these private players have well funded captive research set up to further their commercial interests. It is the small scale and unorganized manufacturing entities and new enterprising entrepreneurs who really need feasible and reliable manufacturing technologies which should be either free or charged lightly at affordable prices. To day's ground reality is that these small players find it difficult even get entry to these highly "secured"citadels of research. (as if they are guarding a gold treasury) let alone make use of the technologies which are listed for sale in their brochures and news clips from time to time. Another bane is the pronounced tendency in public funded research organizations to go more and more for "research" in areas of academic interest which give them a number of "publications" and "Ph.Ds" from Universities. 

It is a sad story how domestic food research activities invariably focus too much on "modern" nutritionally suspect food products rather than taking up studies on thousands of traditional foods which are crying for attention in terms of product quality standardization and process modernization including mechanization as far as possible. Unfortunately traditional foods are made and sold mostly in the unorganized sector which does not have adequate clout to influence and attract attention of food scientists and technologists while government is a mute spectator to this situation. Government must set up a blue ribbon commission to look into research efforts that operate to day and recast the organizations, squandering precious public funds unconscionably, into a responsive and vibrant system that will serve the citizen as well as the domestic food industry in standing up to the challenges posed by multinationals and monopolistic domestic giants in vying for a more legitimate share of the market.  


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