Intro: Though India is a key producer of food products, productivity levels are very low in the country. Considering the criticality, there is a need to appropriately address the challenges faced by this sector.
India produces arguably the world’s best intrinsic quality foodgrains, vegetables and milk. India’s geographical location, soil, riverine deltas, agro zones and cyclic climatic patterns to its benefit are a natural gift for the production of exquisite, best quality cereals like Basmati rice and Sharbati wheat and a huge variety of uniquely flavoursome fruits like mango, banana and apple. India's fruits and vegetables stand out unmatched in quality and flavour.
In spite of the above natural advantages, India's share in global export of processed foods is merely 1.7 per cent. This has to be seen in light of the fact that only 2 per cent of food produced in the country is processed for export and India ranked number one in the world in 2012 in the production of papayas, chickpeas, ginger, okra, goat milk and buffalo meat, and is currently ranked second in the world in the production of sugarcane, rice, potatoes, wheat, garlic, shelled groundnut, dry onion, green pea, pumpkin, gourds, cauliflower, tea, tomatoes, lentils, wheat and cow's milk. This is a pathetic commentary on the utilisation of our inherent, nature ordained advantage in food production. As in other areas, our present challenge is to utilise our huge unused potential, not only to take India to the heights of its pristine prosperity but to extend the benefits of its natural bounties to the teeming millions of the global village.
The Modi government needs to be credited for drawing up the National Mission on Food Processing which focuses on technology up gradation, establishment of preservation, warehousing facilities and promotional activities. A slew of policy measures related to income tax, service tax, customs duty and central excise duty benefits have been announced for food processing industry and rightly so considering the enormous potential of this sector in India's accelerated economic development. The government has grandiose plans to set up 42 mega food parks across the country under Public-Private Partnership (PPP) mode. It has permitted 100 per cent Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the automatic route for most food products. The items excepted are those reserved for micro and small enterprises. All these policy pronouncements are only too appropriate considering our huge inherent potential in this area which is not shared by any other country of the world. However, it would be wiser to go in for FDI limited to 49 percent in some areas to utilise domestic finance and retain enterprise ownership with Indians. The most important point in India's favour which has been duly highlighted in the policy plan is India's strategic geographic location with huge coastline and proximity to global food importing hubs. Considering all this, the plan blueprint for food processing under the make in India campaign is well laid out.
But there is the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip. Every policy remains on paper unless implemented in right earnest disregarding extraneous considerations including party politics. We have to save our farmers from the scourge of poverty and debt which has shown itself in numerous farmer suicides, which, unfortunately continues even under the new political dispensation. We have to kill the callous middleman and the evil middleman-politician-bureaucrat nexus to help our distressed farmer. Instead of taking cosmetic measures, we need to build a logistically strong supply chain which is sadly lacking in the country. It would be necessary to promote skill development in food processing sector so that the benefit of modern technology can pass on to it. We need to assiduously implement the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 so that our foodstuffs maintain the globally acceptable standards of cleanliness and hygiene, which has been our deficient area for a long time. We also need to ensure easy access of food processing entrepreneur to credit. The single most important point for focus is our farmer whose economic transformation should be our important objective. In fact, we need to care more for our farmer than the retail consumer in our commercial food processing business model.
It is emphasised that India's super quality food produce has the potential to capture 15 per cent of the global export market if we proceed systematically and professionally. Let us use the present set of opportunities to make this happen.
(The writer is a senior columnist)