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From fragmented fields to food factory - DTE - Section - A.4

I. 04 From fragmented fields to food factory

The NDA Agenda visualises India as the `Food Factory' of the world. But this is easier said than done, as there are a lot of barriers at the production and processing levels. High standards are expected of processed food and India has no network of laboratories to certify quality. The transition from small fields to a food supplier to the world is no easy task, says Sharad Joshi.

THE National Democratic Alliance (NDA) released its Agenda for Development, Good Governance, Peace and Harmony on April 8. That was rather late in the day to permit any fruitful debate, during the electoral campaign, on the vast range of subjects and issues it covers. The newspapers headlined the item "Ram Mandir included in the NDA agenda". In fact, there is no mention of the temple in the over 50 pages of the Agenda document. The only reference figuring in paragraph 57(2) reiterates the well-known twin approach of consensus-cum-judiciary on the Ayodhya issue.

Agriculture, on the contrary, covers over 15 pages (Chapters 5, 6 and 7). The media, both print and electronic, paid scant attention to the agricultural agenda of the alliance that, according to many a poll and forecast, is most likely to form the next government at the Centre.

The Agenda formulates a new seven-pronged strategy with a view to making India an "Economic Super Power". As for agriculture, it visualises India as the `Food Factory' of the world.

Agriculture is the provider of food, fuel and fibre. Making India a food factory of the world, that is, supplier of foodgrains, pulses, oilseeds, their derivatives, fruit, and dairy and poultry products would obviously be a pipedream.

The Agenda spells out numerous schemes for raising the production in agriculture, horticulture, dairy, poultry and fisheries; it would still obviously fall short of becoming the food factory of the world.

Since consumers the world over demand mainly processed food, any country with ambitions of becoming a global supplier of foods would have to plan to become a major processor.

The NDA believes that "the food-processing industry can make our rural economy vibrant in the same manner that IT has made our national economy prosper." It proposes to raise the percentage of the value of agricultural produce processed from 2 to 10 in coming five years. The handicaps are exhaustively enumerated: Fragmentation of land, inefficiency, low quality standards and inadequate logistic support.

As regards the fragmentation of holdings, the NDA proposes legislation to enable leasing of land (Para 5.11). However, Para 12.2 explicitly excludes private investments in the nature of corporate farming.

While some reservations about corporate sector's entry into agriculture are understandable, farming through corporations of farmers formed through conversion of land and labour into equity could play a major role in providing fillip to food processing.

The food-processing industry requires large quantities of water. In these times of water shortages, it would be difficult to launch any ambitious programme of enhancing food-processing capacity. Even in the long run, a food-processing industry that is vulnerable to vicissitudes of monsoons and water availability can scarcely hope to be a global player.

On the demand side, the consumers are increasingly becoming conscious of quality, sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards. Most food, as harvested in tropical countries including India, is substandard. Scanning for such unhygienic ingredients as E coli and aflatoxins involves a major effort.

The fact is that the farm community, at large, is ignorant of the exacting standards of the global market. Worse, it has no access to laboratories that can test and certify its products in the light of specifications in different countries.

Before one can seriously contemplate becoming even a minor food factory of the world, one will have to plan for an extensive network of well-equipped food laboratories within easy access of all villages.

The NDA Agenda recognises this deficiency and provides for a Unified Food Law to be enacted within the first six months as also an independent Food Regulatory Authority, also within six months, that will be responsible for setting and enforcing standards for all food products.

The NDA Agenda also proposes a dairy industry development plan within the first six months and promises to set up an expert committee to suggest ways to minimise wastage and damage along the food chain.

Some of the more serious problems relating to the food-processing industry have received scant attention in the NDA Agenda. The food-processing industry is dependent on availability of food surpluses. "Eat what you can and can what you cannot," describes the present stage of food processing in India. So, first, the food-processing industry must command a supply of raw materials as also the varieties and quality thereof.

The cooperative sector in the sugar industry has failed to produce satisfactory results in spite of abundant government funding. Contract farming is not seen as a solution as the entry of corporate sector is frowned upon. Further, contract farming would presuppose a judiciary that decides cases on farm contracts in less than 30 days. `Farmers' corporations' would appear to be the only feasible solution. But that does not even find a mention in the NDA's Agenda.

The most important question on the demand side is which market would the food-processing industry cater to? At present, the food-processing industry produces Western-type foods that are consumed by a small consumer class.

In this area, they face difficult competition from foreign manufacturers which have long experience of manufacturing these items. The food-processing industry in India would need to make a quantum switch to indigenous food products that would be consumed even by the upper- and middle classes and consumers at large abroad.

The menu-card of the NDA is certainly appealing but will the alliance get the mandate to be the chef in Delhi?

28.04.2004                                                                                                 - Sharad Joshi