Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Jute bag controversy- A Lobbying "contest"!

The eternal fight between jute lobby and plastic lobby for cornering a greater share of orders for packing bags for sugar and food grains does not seem to be ebbing as reflected by the attempts to dilute the much touted Jute Packaging Material Act of 1987 (JPM ACT) promulgated by Government of India to protect the interests of the jute farmers and jute mills predominantly located in North Eastern India. It was realized early by the government that jute industry is vital for saving employment and sustenance of jute farmers for which policy protection is necessary. There appears to be about 4 lakh workers engage by the jute industry who are not adept in doing any other work and therefore working of these mills is imperative for their livelihood. Besides about 40 lakh families are involved in farming activities to raise jute fiber whose very existence depends on the working of the jute mills. In the light of these compulsions government's move in promulgating the above Act mandating the use of jute bags for packing food grains and sugar has been timely and reassuring.

Advent of cheaper plastic sacks seems to have tempted the food grain and sugar sector to switch over to them though under the Law there is a limit beyond which plastics cannot be used. Offense under the JPM ACT is serious punishable crimes capable of attracting financial penalty and imprisonment. Still this Act is violated frequently while the government is a helpless bystander! The reasons are many for such a peculiar situation vis-a-vis jute bag use. According to JPM Act at least 40% of sugar produced must be packed in jute bags while 100% of grains stored and distributed must be in jute bags. From time to time government dilutes the stringent provision of the Act mainly because of inadequate availability of jute bags when required, based on the recommendations of ministries concerned. In 2012-13 the jute bag demand was about 14 lakh bales while the jute industry could supply only 13 lakh bales calling for increased use of plastic sacks. Similarly in 2013-2014 Government projected a need of 20 lakh bales but jute industry could only "commit" 16 lakh bales. Ultimately how much they can really supply is some thing one has to wait and see.

As a packing material plastic sacks recommend themselves because of their greater functionality, especially with regard to moisture ingression. For a commodity like sugar protection from moisture is absolutely necessary to prevent moisture absorption by this hygroscopic product. Some blame must be borne by the jute industry for its stagnant technological base and lack of innovative spirit. If adequate research and development activities were practiced it could have thrown up modified jute bags with superior functional properties. Still jute use must be encouraged in India because empty bags generate so much down stream business activities providing gainful employment to millions of people. Besides jute is a sustainable commodity unlike plastics which are made from fossil fuels with high polluting capacity.

In a move that smells of a victory for the plastic lobby, recent advocacy by the textile ministry for allowing plastics to be allowed for packing 80% of sugar production in the country, raises many uncomfortable questions. There is nothing wrong if plastic sacks are allowed to be used if there is a genuine shortage of jute bags. But whether there is really a shortage is not clear though there are reports that domestic jute industry is importing jute bags from Bangladesh illegally. Indian situation is some what odd because the government is being asked to micro manage two industries and it can never satisfy both of them. Probably since the government buys more than 40% of the jute bags produced in the country for packing procured grains in different states, it may be inevitable that such a role is played to act equitably for all the stake holders.

If there is a choice between plastics and jute, government is justified in going for the latter considering social, environmental, economic and other advantages inherent in the case of jute. By providing a minimum support price (MSP) to jute farmers government is doing a yeoman service and in the absence of such a mechanism jute would have vanished from India long ago. It is another matter that to day's market price for jute is significantly higher than the MSP but these are good times for jute industry and MSP's USP will be realized only during distress time when market value plunges due to extraneous problems, both domestic and international. The unique strength of India as a top jute producing country must not be forfeited though Bangladesh is almost at the heels of India in matching jute production. As against India's production of 2 million tons (MT) Bangladesh raises 1.5 MT and China 4,400,00 MT. 

A million dollar question that begs for an answer is whether the domestic demand for jute bags will remain same if and when the country goes in for modern storage technology like silos which can considerably reduce jute bag use. Similarly use of paper bags with ultra strength properties may also pose a challenge while new technologies in the plastic front can throw up much superior and cheaper alternatives to jute. Here is where the jute industry must try to diversify jute uses and exploit the "natural" tag attached to their products. Besides its "Green" credentials are high making it the choice for millions of people concerned about global warming and environmental destruction through unsustainable technologies and resources. probably it could take a leaf out of the strong coir industry in Kerala which has diversified the use of coir in a wide variety of modern day products.     


Monday, October 27, 2014

Life is precious-Why do people give it up?

Life is considered a precious gift from God by most people in the world though there are a few atheists who think there is nothing like a God. However as long as man is not able to revive a completely dead person back to normal life or create artificial life one has to admit the existence of an omnipotent force with powers beyond what human beings, in spite of vast scientific and technological prowess at their disposal, possess. There are occasional reports that some scientists are on the threshold of creating artificial life though it cannot be still considered satisfactory to sideline God yet. Probably in years to come man may succeed but one has to wait for that day before casting serious doubt about the existence of God. This is a controversial issue and people on both sides of the divide will have to respect each others' feelings.

If life is a precious thing why do people commit suicide so often knowing pretty well that they can never return back to life? One of the most accepted views is that suicide happens when the extreme mental condition of the person does not allow him to think seriously the mind boggling consequences of committing such an act and in many cases those who fail in their effort to take their life in the first attempt invariably give up unless there is serious mental derangement. According to WHO experts on a global basis, one suicide takes place every 40 seconds working out to an annual suicide rate of 8 lakh per year. It is interesting to see that suicide rate varies from country to country though low income and middle income countries report higher suicide rates. Thus no one country is immune to suicidal tendency whether rich or poor, whether in Asia, America, Africa or Europe. Another notable phenomenon is that those who choose death voluntarily are mostly illiterates! 

India is a country where suicide rates are considered high though there are others with almost double the rate in other continents. If one believes in the babu version of government of India there were only 134, 600 deaths due to suicide in India in the year 2012 but WHO where such deaths are systematically documented the real figure was 258, 075 out of which 99, 977 were women and 158, 098 men. Obviously there must be some suppression of data in India or the documentation system is faulty. Overall there is 21.1 suicides for every 1 lakh population. It is not a consolation that a poor country like Guyana has a suicide rate as high as 44.2 per one lakh population or for that matter Sri Lanka recorded 28.8 deaths or Nepal had a figure of 24.9 suicides per one lakh. What is appalling is that in Indian suicide rate is high when it comes to the age group of 15-29 years aggregating to 35.5 per lakh while among 30 to 49 years group the rate falls to 28 per lakh

Suicide by farmers is always sensational and the media loves to report them promptly accusing the governments for such happenings in the country. However farmer suicides are less than 10% of the national figure though self inflicted deaths in rural belt is mostly due to serious financial indebtedness and insurmountable difficulties to meet both the ends meet on account of drought and crop failure. Pesticide poisoning, hanging and self immolation account for most deaths in countries like India while firearms are extensively used in countries like the US where they are easily available in the market. Interestingly in most wealthy countries poverty or hunger is not the primary reason for self-inflicted death but it is the acute mental disorders that drive them to this extreme step. Koreans are an interesting case where suicide rates are as high as 28.9 to 38.5 per lakh. Though on the development scale South Koreans are far ahead with high per capita income, the suicide figure tells a different story. There the figure is almost 29 per lakh while in North Korea it is 38.5 per lakh

What about our neighbor China? It is a confusing picture there as there are no independent reports that can substantiate the official claims by the government, The claim that it has dramatically reduced suicide rate from 22.3 per lakh a decade ago to 9.8 per lakh, a reduction of about 58% cannot be verified but even if if it is partially true the achievement is really noteworthy. One of the reasons attributed to this phenomenon is the rapid, conscious and massive urbanization programs initiated by the communist government and many social welfare supports available to the citizens. This is understandable because suicides take place mostly in rural and semi-urban areas for which no credible explanation is still available.    

In absolute numbers maximum suicides take place in India, about 2.6 lakh out of a global figure of 8 lakh (almost 33%) though country's population is less than 18% of world population. This may prompt critics to call India the suicide capital of the world. It is a poor reflection on the metal strength of the nation which boasts of 5000 years of glorious history, an ancient civilization and the epicenter of epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana,  In a land where Buddha and Mahavir Jain were born, peace within and around should have been a strong trait among their descendants. Also this is the land where Mahatma Gandhi, the Universal Apostle of nonviolence was born and attained martyrdom. If so why this depredation, deprivation, desperation and predisposition that drive people to destroy their own lives? Where has this country gone wrong in evolving such a destructive environment when people think of taking their own lives? Is there a spiritual bankruptcy or lack of self confidence or a sense of helplessness which is responsible for this situation? There is an urgent need for introspection among Indians vis-a-vis the factors that drive some of their fellow citizens towards self destruction so as to bring about radical self corrective measures.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


A recent report that the air quality in Delhi severely deteriorated a day after Diwali with the city recording nine times higher pollution level than the normal is itself  very disturbing but more disturbing is the nonchalance with which citizens take such reports as if it is is nothing of much significance to them. This is all the more appalling after the nation's conscience was awakened by the Primi Minister on Mahatma Gandhi's birth day on October 2 this year by announcing the launching of the famous Swach Bharath Abhiyan which is sought to be an instrument to transform the country from its present 'thucha bharath" image into a clean nation with clean people. It is famously said that Indians are more enamored by the "title" than the content and this Diwali they seem to have justified that reputation! 

According to the latest study the Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM) which determines the quality of air and its fitness to be breathed reached a staggering level of more than 530 ug per cubic meter (microgram) following three days of reckless fire cracker mania that gripped the country. Air pollution can adversely affect the breathing of children and adults alike with the former more vulnerable to respiratory diseases like Asthma. Normally a RSPM concentration of 60 mg per cubic meter is considered tolerable and the post Diwali level of 530 ug, almost 10 times higher than this figure needs to be taken seriously. It should be recalled that World Health Organization recently expressed grave concern about the Air quality in Delhi and warned about its serious consequences to its inhabitants. As usual Government denied that there is any thing serious about such a situation!

Particulate matter of 10 um (micron) size can cause cancer like diseases and if they are still finer, viz 2.5 um the danger is multiplied several fold. Small sized particulates can penetrate into lungs and blood streams causing significant DNA mutations resulting in multiple diseases which are difficult to be treated successfully. Many countries have set zero limits for particulates of size 2.5 um and less, the upper limit for 10 um size particulates is as low as 50 ug per cubic meter. In the Indian context one does not know the proportion of 2.5 um size present in the RSPM figure. According to health experts for every increase of 10 ug per cubic meter of suspended particles in the air, the risk of lung cancer rises by 22%. More dangerously if the particle size is less than 2.5 um the chances of lung cancer increases by 36%.

In India such warnings are routinely issued by scientists at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology before Diwali celebration kick starts which practically no one including the citizens cares to listen and take appropriate pre-emptive steps to avoid ruining the air quality. The newly launched Air Quality Index is supposed to be a tool for monitoring air quality on a daily basis and advise the nation regarding remedial steps that need to be taken. Unfortunately in India Scientists are rarely listened to as babus/bureaucrats rule the roost! World-wide India is considered one of the worst sinners when it comes to air pollution and it is a shame that 13 of the worst polluted cities are in India among 1600 cities in this planet. What a credential for a country which harbors great ambitions to be an economic power house similar to the United States and China. It is not a consolation that Beijing in China is often dubbed as "Greyjing" because of the high air pollution reported in this city almost throughout the year, mostly caused by industrial pollutants.  It must be realized, sooner than later by Indians, that for a nation to be great, its citizens have to be honest, responsible with high civic sense, dedicated and hard working, humanitarian and proud to be a part of the country's achievements and ethos. Whether the present PM can motivate the population to gain such a character is a million dollar question.

Interestingly Kolkatta does not lag too far behind Delhi boasting of a RSPM of 417 ug while Chennai's RSPM was 320 ug. Whether these figures are high because of Diwali or they are uniformly high through out the year is some thing which needs to be monitored over a period of time. According to some international experts air pollution in India is high because of millions of chulas being used by the rural folks for cooking of food and heating water in more than 5 lakh villages across the country throwing out high particulate smoke though wide spread adoption of LPG lately must have reduced this smoke load significantly. Added to this indiscriminate burning of garbage in cities and villages, post harvest burning of vast tracts of agricultural fields, uncontrolled forest fires and open cremation of bodies by most of the population must be contributing hugely to the particulate as well as toxic load to the air across the country. Exhaust fumes from automobiles and power stations also contribute to air pollution very significantly.

Speaking about Diwali, the recent Tweeting by the PM congratulating those who cleaned up their places after bursting crackers promptly may be timely but those citizens did this admirable job must be a microscopic minority. During the three days beginning 22 October the streets in most towns and cities were looking like a war zone with debris from the burst crackers strewn all around with neither the people who did this nor the civic authorities too much bothered about cleaning them up. Though there is supposed to be a law which bars bursting of crackers after 10 pm, this was blatantly violated by many people with no consideration for their fellow citizens and millions of other creatures like birds, dogs, cats etc! High decibel crackers are known to have a detrimental effect on the hearing faculty of human beings and it is sad that those who suffer are not the one perpetuating this act but innocent fellow citizens who are present nearby out of compulsions. Millions of our citizens and thousands of our politicians visit countries like the US where there are strict laws governing bursting of crackers but they promptly forget them when they return to this pervasive country. It is time that clear guidelines are evolved for organizing fire displays during Diwali or Dassara by the civic bodies in well ear marked, secluded areas where high tech fire crackers can be deployed for the pleasure of those who are obsessed with light and sound.  


Saturday, October 18, 2014


Are the Indians predominantly vegetarians? If so, is it due to culture, religion or economic compulsions? Very difficult to answer but if statistical pundits are to be believed most of the Indians population do not consume non-plant foods except milk and milk products and a small minority does not even consume dairy products. For those who are delighted to see figures, here are some data which may be of doubtful veracity but still some thing to go by! 20% to 42% of Indian population ( some say 39% only) are vegetarians while another 9% though vegetarians have no qualms about eating eggs. Diehard non-vegetarians  who consume meat and other animal derived foods regularly constitute 30% while the rest are fair weather non-vegetarians eating meat foods occasionally.   

Having stated the obvious, a crucial question that is always considered sensitive is how many people eat beef, derived from cows? Statistics may be hard to come by since most Hindus will not admit to beef eating due to peer pressure and sacredness of cow that is legendary in the country. Interestingly India to day tops the world in terms of dairy production, cattle production and beef export. Why is this interesting? Because what happens to millions of cows which become dry, not yielding viable volume of milk regularly? They cannot be killed in most of the States in the country and the present rulers in Delhi are known to oppose vehemently cow slaughter.What about Buffaloes? Since hardly any distinction is made between meat from cow or buffalo, both being categorized as beef, how can one differentiate dishes made from the meat derived from these two animals. This can be done only through sophisticated biological tests but no one seems to be bothered about this inconvenient question at any point in the meat supply chain. 

Indigenous breeds of cow that flourished in the Indian sub-continent include Bhadhwari, Desan, Gujarati, Sorti, Surati, Red Sindhi, Mahi, Sahiwal, Ongole, Deoni etc all of which hailed from one or the other part of the country. Imported breeds, considered exotic, which played a crucial role in the White revolution through cross breeding and animal upgradation projects during the last 5 decades include Jersey, Holstein, Brown Swiss, Red Dane, Ayrshire and Guernsey and to day it is next to impossible to identify any pure desi breed, if at all there are any. One of the contentions of those who start consuming beef is that only desi cows are sacred and they would not eat the meat if they were slaughtered! 

Some of the social and religious activists who uphold the sanctity of cows run the so called "Goshalas" where "spent" cows are given shelter and allowed to die gracefully due to old age when they reach that stage. There are some Goshalas who run production facilities for making many products from Cow's urine for curing or ameliorating an array of diseases ranging from simple itching to cancer. However these are far and few not being able to make any dent on the population of cows with no milking potential. The big dilemma a country like India faces is what to do with these spent cattle with out hurting the sentiments of a significant number of people across the country believing sincerely that cow is sacred. Is it feasible to build thousands of Goshalas investing huge resources on an unproductive venture like this? This is all the more relevant when it is realized that there are millions of senior citizens with no dependents and support crying for a shelter to live in peace awaiting their last days and die gracefully! 

A recent report from Delhi brings the question of unwanted cows and their uncertain fate in sharp focus calling for attention by the governments at the Center and States. There appears to be over 40000 cattle roaming the streets of Delhi, some unwanted and uncared for while others are left in the open by their owners for want of shelters of their own. This has led to the generation of cattle lifters called "Rustlers" who are adept in stealing the animals surreptitiously in an organized way for selling to illegal slaughter houses operating in thousands across the country. In Andhra Pradesh alone there are reported to be 3100 illegal slaughter house as against 6 licensed Abattoirs! Though Delhi police is trying to do their duty entrusted to them to checkmate the activities of these people, the effort is rather insignificant and success far and few. Same must be happening in all cities, towns and small urban entities where there is a demand for beef cattle creating a flourishing business for those willing to take some risks of lifting the animals, transporting them to fly by night operators for butchering mercilessly. Another added worry is how safe are these meat products made in unlicensed and unclean slaughter houses with questionable technical competence to process meat.

Beef production and consumption is a dynamite which no government would like to touch for fear of creating societal turbulence and when there is no meeting ground between science and faith as in the present case, the problem is likely to remain as intractable for a long time to come. The Rustlers will have a roaring time making easy money with practically no investment to make.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Edible oils and pulses play a significant role in the diets in India where the population by nature or due economic compulsions are predominantly herbivores. Especially critical is the place of pulses in the diet as they provide a major part of the proteins needed for balanced nutrition. In contrast oils constitute the energy source, supposed to contribute about 30% of biological energy in the diet. On an average humans need about 50-60 gm each of oils and pulses to meet the body needs and this requirement can be met from a variety of sources including pulses, oil seeds and extracted oils from seeds like groundnut, oil palm, soybean, cotton seed, mustard, sesame and others like maize germ, rice bran etc. While India produces about 20 million tons(mt) of pulses annually, its edible oil production is stagnating at around 8 mt since 2003-2004.

In spite of the critical shortage of the above two food crops ever since independence, not much could be done in raising their production due to many reasons. Historically India always placed higher priority to production of cereals like rice and wheat through attractive minimum support price policies till the year 2000 and farmers were always attracted by such incentives to cultivate more cereals than pulses and oil seeds. Though the MSP levels were raised 92% in the case of mustard to 212% for sunflower between 2001 to 2013, the production of these two crops still languished and the country is at a loss as to what has to be done to raise their production. The history of repeated imports of edible oils and pulses continue causing a hemorrhagic out flow of foreign exchange year after year to prevent price escalation in the domestic market.

While in 200-2001, the proportion of imports of oils was less than 50% ( 5 mt out of 11 mt) of the country's need, to day the corresponding figure stands at a whopping 60%( 10.5 mt out of 18 mt)! Domestic production increased by just 40% during these 13 years while imports more than doubled. . While annual per capita use of oil is about 92 kg in Argentina, 60 kg in the EU countries, 55 kg in America, in India it is a paltry 15 kg. The world average is more than 25 kg, almost double that in India. Of course nutritionists may argue that low consumption of fat is a win-win situation as high fat consumption is implicated in many disease like CVD, Hypertension, Diabetes and Obesity!  Probably if the present spurt in oil prices with most oils being priced between Rs 100-200 per liter, how far demand for this culinary ingredient will be sustained is a million dollar question. However market optimists expect that by 2020 the demand may reach about 23 mt from the current availability of 18 mt. How the government is going to react to this situation remains to be seen.

Current pulse production of 20 mt is supplemented by import of about 4 mt and the daily per capita availability works out to about 70 gm though the National Sample Survey says that the consumption is only about less than 30 gm a day. Why this discrepancy is not clear but there is a trend which clearly shows that consumption of pulses is coming down significantly over the years and an Indian citizen was much better off in the first decade after independence compared to present day India as far as pulse consumption is concerned. In contrast per capita availability cereals is almost same to day compared to 60 years ago hovering around 450 gm a day. Whether this justifies successive government efforts in boosting cereal production at any cost is matter of debate. Interestingly in spite of imports of about 4 mt of pulses into India the market prices of pulses still rule very high, unaffordable to many low income citizens to buy the minimum need as per the nutritional guide.

The above convoluted picture raises another important question regarding the priority accorded to sugarcane in this country which is heavily steeped in politics, most powerful politicians being products of the sugar lobby which have tremendous influence on the thinking and working of the governments at the Center as well as in some states. As a nation it is time that the role of sugarcane in the agricultural landscape of the country is revisited. 25 mt of sugar produced from sugarcane cultivated in 53 million hectares of country's precious land can be considered laudable from agricultural achievement view but how relevant is this to the food needs of the country? Sugar is considered a white poison in the lives of people though it adds considerable pleasure to the human palate and its by product Alcohol inebriates the consumer! From nutrition angle sugar does not serve any purpose in the diet and its calories are no more superior to that contributed by starch contained in all cereals, pulses, root crops, fruits and many vegetables. Why not restrict the sugarcane cultivation through disincentives and punitive measures and divert the land for raising pulses and oil seeds in the national interest? If the sugarcane cultivation is reduced by 50% the resulting spared land can increase the present production of oil seeds and pulses very significantly.

To day the area under cultivation for oil seeds and pulses is 30 million hectares (mha) and 25 mha respectively. Imagine the impact of diverting 50% of the land currently under sugarcane (about 27 mha) to production of these vital crops on the economic health as well the human health of the population in the country. All it needs is to protect the income of farmers who are cultivating sugarcane at present which will be persuasive enough for them to switch over.to oil seeds and pulses.


Friday, October 10, 2014


"Unless there are big changes within the next 20 years, I foresee a two-class food system. One class will eat industrialized food produced as cheaply as possible at the expense of its workers and natural resources. The other will enjoy home gardens and locally and sustainably produced food, at greater cost. I'm hoping for the enormous expansion of this latter approach. For that, we need a farm policy inextricably linked to health and environmental policy. We can achieve that, but only with serious advocacy and political engagement."

The above quote is by Marion Nestle, one of most celebrated food exponent of this century about the future of food consumption pattern in this planet. Similarly a host of personalities, known widely world over expressed their views regarding what the food landscape will like in 20 years. these include Mark Bittman, Stewart Brand, Dan Barber, Richard Branson, Bee Wilson, Michael Pollan, Dorothy Cann Hamilton, Ray Kurzweil, Ferran Adria, Corey Lee, Mark Stech-Novak, Daniel Patterson, Paul West, Steve Case and Anna Lappe

Though every one may not agree with these views a distinct trend is perceptible and the future does not hold any optimism regarding the initiative that has to be taken on a mission mode to remove some of the obstacles that exist to day in ensuring availability of good food that can guarantee sound health for future generations. Land use pattern including consolidation of fragmented land holdings, seed quality enhancement, steady productivity increase, agricultural practices, increased emphasis on organic foods, cleaning up the environment by reducing pollution and greenhouse emission, improved food safety compliance, radical shift in the attitude of the processing industry, all call of renewed vigor by all the stakeholders of the food sector to bring about quantum changes in the coming years. 

Readers of this Blog must refer to the following source of information where the individual views of the above doyens can be accessed. (http://time.com/3482452/future-of-food/)


Monday, October 6, 2014


Is food safety a real concern with many governments across the world? Hardly so if the money spent on ensuring food safety is used as a yardstick about the seriousness of the intend of the political class, bureaucrats and business captains. The USFDA is notorious in "silent" collusion with the industry, often supported by politicians, in not bringing to books many food business people who violate food laws with impunity or influencing decision taking process to the disadvantage of the citizen. Look at India where a toothless agency managed by a "dyed in wool" bureaucrat makes right noises in public but rarely does anything substantial in wiping out the scourge called "adulteration".

It is rather odd that terrorism is a fashionable word and governments are using potential threat from terrorists to waste enormous money in counter terrorism activity. According to one estimate the US alone spends about 1.2 trillion dollars annually to "equip" itself to face terrorism in the country. No one can belittle the threat posed by fanatic terrorists who have no logic or rationale in sponsoring violence against innocent citizens on some imaginary grouse. Also no one should have quarrel with the government for spending such huge sums in national security, if it is real. But food safety also should receive same priority as terrorism when it comes to funding.

While on the subject of food safety one of the biggest tragedies of modern times is the blanket approval surreptitiously or other wise to the meat food industry to use antibiotics for purposes other than treatment of disease stricken animals. The rampant use of antibiotics by American meat industry seems to have created a monstrous situation that is putting in peril lives of millions of people. The antibiotic resistance developed by most pathogens is due to continuous use of these chemicals for promoting growth and thus increase the industry profitability. Imagine what happens to a person who is seriously ill due to infection, if the antibiotics prescribed by his doctor does not work because the causative agent, a pathogen, has necessary metabolic whereabouts to make the antibiotic appear innocuous! How can this life be saved if antibiotics do not work and what will happen to millions of people who are vulnerable to such a situation?

In an interesting expose, it has been reported that America meat industry used almost 30 million pounds of antibiotics for fattening their meat animals while only 7.7 million pounds were used on human beings affected by infectious illness! No wonder almost 2 million people are infected with antibiotic resistant pathogens every year in the US exposing them to serious life threatening situation. The American meat industry is habituated to house millions of animals in insanitary, overcrowded and brutally inhuman pens or poultry farms and they have found this convenient so that minimum investment is needed for "maintaining" such hellish farms and liberal use antibiotics can reduce mortality significantly! 

In yet another expose, it was reported that American meat industry liberally use Beta-agonists, a growth promoting drug to achieve fast growth of the animals which can naturally reduce the time of sacrificing the animal for meat. Why this country is allowing the use of this drug is a big mystery because this has been banned by many countries around the world including the EU, Japan and China. The ill effects of Beta-agonists are well documented and still this crazy country supports the industry against its own citizens!. What is disturbing is the acquiescence of scientists, universities and pharma companies in this heinous crime without affecting their conscience. 

While government has neither the time nor the resources to discipline this industry, it finds ample time to gag whistle blowers who were earlier bringing to light the malpractices of this industry through legal measures. Animal abuse, unsafe and insanitary conditions, environmental hazards and unscientific practices will continue unabated as the industry is sure that the government will never tighten the screw by denying funds for modernization of safety vigilance infrastructure. The pittance of a budget which is hardly $ one billion per year for the FDA will ensure nothing changes in the US in the foreseeable future.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


India is supposed to be the biggest provider of free foods to its needy children and vulnerable segments of the population funded by the government. It is estimated that India spends annually about Rs 27000 crore on various feeding programs across the country. Some of the schemes include integrated Child Development services (ICDS), Nutrition program for adolescent girls, Nutrition Advocacy and Awareness Generation Program, Follow up action for National Nutrition Policy of 1993, Nutrition programs of ministry of Health and Social Welfare, Iron-Folic Acid supplementation for Pregnant Women, Vitamin A Supplementation for Children of 9-36 months, National Iodine Deficiency Disorder Control Program, Department of Elementary School and Literacy programs and Midday Meal for primary School Children. No wonder there are frequent criticisms regarding the effectiveness of these programs as multiple agencies are involved in administering different programs and an average citizen thinking that his money is being wasted.

While criticism of any efforts is welcome as long as they are constructive, the logistics of these operations are so gigantic that there can be slip ups and mishaps periodically. Most trenchant critics point out the pilferage of funds from these schemes through political-bureaucratic-contractors nexus about which governments at the center as well as at the State levels do not seem to be doing enough to make them more transparent. The net effect is that many deserving and needy beneficiaries do not get their entitlement. Probably by far the most visible nutrition program is the mammoth school feeding project benefiting millions of children, most of them being considered poor in economic terms.   

Government scheme that supports the mid day meal program costs about Rs 13,215 crore annually benefiting 12 crore children in 12.5 lakh schools across the country. According to some surveys one of the most desirable objectives of this scheme viz improving attendance in the primary schools has been well served resulting in progressive reduction in illiterate population in the country. Whether the nutrition status of the children also showed any significant improvement is a matter of debate. What is incongruous in this program is that it does not make any distinction between "haves" and "have nots" as the food is forced on every body irrespective of the income of their parents. Government is squarely responsible for this situation as it has not been able to generate and document the income profiles of families of children attending various schools. Naturally the resources are spread thin and impact is less than optimum. 

The eternal debate about the delivery systems most appropriate for the schools will never cease. There are strong protagonists advocating freshly cooked foods to made locally for feeding while many experts feel "ready to eat" (RTE) formulated food products in safe pilfer proof packs with long life are more suitable for mass feeding. Both sides have sufficient justification for their respective stands. It is not realized that no one solution can fit the exacting needs of this program. Probably a dual mode may be the alternative with those schools having sufficient staff, facilities and clean water provision going in for fresh cooking while schools in remote areas may have to adjust to RTE foods.

A honest citizen in this country may ask the question as to why public money must be spent on such programs with doubtful results. If the money is rightly used benefiting the most needy, no none would grudge such investments for a good future. Is there any alternative funding source that can be tapped? In this context what comes to mind is the socially relevant spending (CSR) being enforced for corporate bodies beginning April 1, 2014 under the Companies Act 2013, Section 135. Under this mandatory provision any industrial group or entrepreneur engaged in commercial activity with more than Rs 1000 crore annual turn over or Rs 500 crore net worth or profit of Rs 5 crore has to set aside 2% of its average profit during the previous 3 years for socially relevant activities. According to tentative estimates there are over 8000 companies which will have to shell out some thing like Rs 15-20 thousand crore each year. Probably this fund could be dedicated exclusively to improve the health of children below the age of 6 years as this is a critical stage of growth when brain development is completed and the future health status of these kids are decided. Lot of planning has to go into this suggestion for making it a workable plan with sufficient sustaining capacity.

A possible way out is entrusting this task to a industry supported body like FICCI or ASSOCHAM or any others managed by the industry to run all nutrition programs in stead of the governments doing it. All know that government machinery with its gargantuan machinery is like a slow moving Elephant and whatever it does is neither accountable nor time bound! Government personnel are mostly officious with no work culture while politicians who control them come and go with least commitment. A body like National Nutrition Food Corporation run with the CSR funds managed like a non-profit company with majority industry representatives and some government nominees can be mandated to run the program across the country. While core fundings will come from CSR contributions from the industry as per the Company Act 2013, liberal voluntary contributions from any quarters eligible for tax exemption can boost the resources available for the program.  


Saturday, October 4, 2014


India is known for the diversity of foods consumed by different ethnic groups spread across the country. In the absence of reliable figures, it has been suggested that there are over 5000 such foods and if variations in recipes is taken into account the number may go beyond 1 lakh. But no one can vouch safe for this number because the ethnic food sector is a much neglected one with hardly any attention from the government or the scientific community. According to National Association of Street Vendors (NASVI) there are over 10 million street vendors alone spread across thousands of towns and cities serving at least hundred different types of food preparations, mostly cooked and served on the side of major road net works frequented by people. Added to these there are over a million small, medium and big restaurants in the country with a decent roof over them attracting a billion customers every day. 

It is very true that Indians do not have the habit of frequently eating out side their homes and such eating when it happens may be far and few. It is estimated that number of visits to restaurants by a family may vary from once or twice a year to a week in a month depending the affluence and disposable incomes. Compared to earlier generations, many nucleus families emerging from the shadows of their parents are increasingly patronizing restaurants because of affluence and lesser time available for home cooking due to their work place demands. In contrast, in some countries, especially in South East Asia, the kitchen size is shrinking rapidly while in many new residential complexes no kitchen is provided at all making the population dependent on foods cooked away from home. 

Against such a background, India can rightly be "proud" that food safety poisoning cases are far and few compared to those in many "sanitized" countries like USA and Europe. This could be due to under reporting of food poisoning incidences or attributed to the "tough" gastrointestinal features that make them immune to even the worst quality of foods served to them! Whether the street food vendor or the under the roof food provider, there is much to be desired as far their hygienic and sanitation standards are concerned. Filthy kitchen, unsafe water and utensils, sub standard ingredients, unhygienic personnel, dirty serving tables etc make these eateries a veritable "danger" spots for those with weak stomachs! One redeeming feature is that Indian cuisine is basically "hot food based" with the heat killing most of the pathogens which might have contaminated the food before cooking. 

With free availability of cheap drugs that can control stomach upsets, most food related episodes never reach the doors of a physician or a hospital and therefore do not enter into record books. It is a fact that a few drugs which are banned all over the world are still available in the country across the counter of a pharmacy store and people do not seem to be so much bothered about minor episodes of stomach upset caused by consuming food preparations from a street vendor or a small time restaurant. Incidences of common diarrhea, jaundice and other GI related episodes, mostly caused by contaminated water are becoming less frequent with the popularity of bottled drinking water carrying the safety mark of ISI. 

When the FSSAI rules were promulgated every eatery was supposed to have a registration or license for operation and it is almost two years since the rules were promulgated. Though the time period for complying with these rules were extended from time to time, the government (GOI) assumed a belligerent posture refusing to give further extension for licensing beyond February 4 2014. However GOI eventually buckled under pressure from the food service industry extending the last date further to august 4 this year. Two critical questions that demand answers involve what the industry was doing for the last several years when the contours of the rules were being framed and why the FSSAI did not anticipate the so called problems being aired by the industry now?

A charitable view may be that FSSAI is conceding the point that operating the food safety system has some practical difficulties. If so extending the last date must be appreciated. But there is a feeling that no one in the country is taking FSSAI seriously and hence this prevarication and obfuscation! On the face of it the FSSAI provision for compulsory registration has a justification because this only can trace the origin of any mishap, if and when occurs, to its source. On the other hand every trade in a civic area requires local licensing and why this arrangement cannot be used in disciplining the eateries within their areas? It is argued that eateries are already burdened by many punitive rules under the state dispensation and FSSAI regulatory rules are obviously an added burden to them. It is as well that government of India has a re-look at the food regulatory regime in the country and address the problems of all stake holders.   


Friday, October 3, 2014


e-retailing or on-line marketing has assumed gigantic proportions lately and to day practically every thing consumer wants can be ordered on-line to be delivered at home sparing the consumer the hassles of visiting retail markets in busy cities with traffic snarls becoming a rule rather than the exception. Internationally Amazon.com is the leading e-retailer world over while there are many players fighting for a slice of the cake which is considered to be lucrative. In India there are a few start ups who had established a niche place for them selves before the advent of Amazon's India operations. While Snapdeal and Flipkart can be expected to offer stiff competition to Amazon, India being a large market there seems to be elbow space for every body. Even small players like BigBasket and LiocalBanya are doing well in supplying groceries to consumers through on-line order. If this is so what is the big deal if Amazon also starts groceries and other shelf stable foods in India with its well organized net work of storage and distribution net work created with local partners?

While Amazon has a great reputation in marketing consumer goods in the US and other countries, when it comes to food it is a different ball game altogether. It is true that many packed foods, especially low moisture products and aseptically packed liquid ones have reasonably good life, sufficient to sell them before expiry dates set in. In a country like India where middle class population form the backbone of food market, it is a disturbing question whether a super profit company like Amazon can earn sufficient margins to sustain the activity. According to reports available regarding their objectives in entering into food portfolio, the company may be adopting a "pick and choose" strategy, concentrating more on high value packed foods with attractive profit margins. Thus break fast cereals costing more than Rs 400/kg or health foods priced sky high or potato chips priced above Rs 300/kg or specialty products like olive oil costing upwards of Rs 600/liter and similar products can be the candidates for this retail giant.

The million dollar question is whether these on-line retailers will also eventually get into marketing fresh fruits and vegetables which is considered a high risk area with lower margins. Start-ups like BigBasket and LocalBanya have established their credentials in this segment and shown that such operations are feasible in spite of many logistical constraints. Though consumer response is reported to be satisfactory so far, only time will tell whether these operations can be sustained on an even keel without affecting the quality consistency. In a country like India where horticulture activities are in a highly disorganized state, accessing good quality fresh produce in time and delivering the same to demanding consumers will be an herculean task.

An important point not being appreciated is that fresh produce are bunch of living cells undergoing respiration and transpiration and after harvesting they tend to loose their quality fast due to biological activities. There are proven technologies which can retard such deterioration, though they cannot be stopped altogether. Refrigeration, freezing and controlled atmosphere storage are the chosen ones but specialized infrastructure and high investments are called for if one has to succeed in retailing these products. An on-line retailer will have handicaps if to indulge in handling fresh produce. Probably those who are serious about such activities will have to depend on existing manufacturers and wholesalers to accept their orders and deliver the same to their on-line consumers.

Whether the food safety regulators in the country would keep quite while on-line retailers prepare themselves to get into fresh produce marketing without having their own facilities is some what doubtful. Clear demarcation of responsibilities for ensuring quality and safety will have to be arrived before such retailing can be allowed in the country. While manufacturers have the responsibility to maintain quality and safety whether they will accept the same when their products are marketed by an agency like Amazon since punishment regimes are severe for violating food safety norms in India (if caught!). According to some reports Amazon is already experimenting in Washington State and the State of California in the US to distribute fresh produce through on-line system. Probably such operations will have to be confined within a geographical area of, say about 100 km radius and this calls for a number of holding areas in a state from where quick delivery can be made. One encouraging feature in India is that there are more than 4000 towns each with adequate population to cater to and Amazon may as well concentrate in these urban areas. One has to wait and see how this company will carry out its business, distinct from the existing players, in order to wean away the key board happy consumers!