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‘Food Processing Can Help Farmers Double Their Income’

Things like India being the fastest growing country in the world today and with the highest amount of FDI coming in the country, looking at ease of doing business, GST, transparency and eliminating red tapism and other measures have helped people see a new India

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Union cabinet minister for Food Processing, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, belongs to the BJP ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, representing the agrarian state of Punjab. Badal has got the ambitious task of establishing the food processing industry, still in its nascent stage, into a national movement, that helps the country’s farmers. In an exclusive interview with Suman K Jha, Badal (51) discusses her priorities and outlines the challenges faced by the sector. Edited excerpts:

What is the vision for the food processing industry and your ministry?

My ministry plays a pivotal role in promoting the food processing industry, which is at a nascent stage today. We are one of the largest producers of food in the world but process only 10 per cent of what we produce. Many smaller countries like Indonesia, Malaysia process about 70-80 per cent of what they produce. So, we have a long way to go.

One of the downsides of processing at a very small scale is that the wastage is very high because when there is a glut, there is a huge amount of wastage and after 3-4 months when the demand is still there, rotting leads to a spike in prices.

Land holding here is shrinking whereas mouths to feed are increasing. In this entire dichotomy, food processing can play a pivotal role in addressing all these issues. Food processing can help in increasing the remuneration of the farmers. This is in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of doubling farmers’ income.

Further, given the young population that we are, this sector can also help in employment generation. This sector gives employment to a lot of women and that has always been my focus — that 50 per cent of our population that has been neglected should be focused on.

In the past three years, I have focused on getting rid of infrastructure gaps by making food processing a separate industry.  All the infrastructure that we inherited like mega food parks, cold storages have been pushed so that they are not just on paper but on the ground and we are committed to completing this infrastructure in a time-bound manner of 24 months.

The government has also launched a new scheme called Kisan Sampada Yojana in May and Rs 6,000 crore has been put aside to create this infrastructure over the next three years. It is going to leverage additional investment of almost Rs 31,000 crore, leading  to agri-processing of 331 million metric tonne worth almost 1 lakh crore which will benefit almost 25 lakh farmers and create employment for almost five lakh youths.

Prime Minister Modi talks about various revolutions like the second Green Revolution. Do you think your mission gels well with Modi’s vision of ushering these revolutions in agriculture, food processing, and in milk revolution?

Absolutely, as the biggest target of our government is to double farmers’ income and in agriculture we have put many revolutionary ideas such as Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, neem-coated urea, irrigation, e-NAM and so on. Doubling farmers’ income is possible not just by increasing his yield but value addition and agro-processing are also required.

So, in the Kisan Sampada Yojana, we provide subsidy to the smaller players because 90 per cent of the food processing industry lies in the unorganised sector. We have got three new schemes, one is the unit scheme that ensures anyone putting a unit inside the mega food park will get a subsidy, second is to ensure a food processing infrastructure wherever there is a cluster of raw material such as milk, meat, fruit and vegetable and every perishable across India, and the third is the backward and the forward linkages, where a farmer can go for value addition through food processing operations. We will handhold the farmers for a period of two years and then move out. So, these schemes will bring a huge amount of difference in the coming years.

When we talk about agriculture, we see floods, droughts. So, do you think that these steps that you are undertaking are a way to make agriculture more resilient to natural calamities?

More resilient, yes. But the flood wipes out everything from infrastructure to crops. So, I don’t think you can flood-proof anything.

What else can be done to encourage the farmers to join the food processing industry?

The farmer today is a little wary of trying anything new. So, encouraging the industry is a better option. Food processing is the bridge between the industry and farming and thus, the farmer requires good seeds, modern technology, modern know-how, so, that his industry can flourish. I would say that this industry is going to benefit farmers since the demand from the market will control as to what the industry should produce and the industry wants the control on what farmers should grow. It will be a very positive change.

Where do you think we are lagging behind from advanced countries in food processing and what can be done to ensure that we catch up?

Due to its capital intensive and seasonal nature, not many people have got into the sector. The second reason is that the mindset of our country is that fresh is healthy and processed is unhealthy. This needs a lot of awareness. For instance, an apple is picked from a tree in Jammu and Kashmir, then it is piled up, then it reaches the mandi in Delhi in a truck, then it probably goes into another cart, then I buy it and finally it gets to my table. This process takes several days and science says that as soon as something is plucked from the tree or plant, its nutrients starts to diminish.

So, basically, packaged and processed food is healthier than normal ones. Further, unprocessed food can be adulterated, but if the food is packaged and FSSAI mark is there, at least you are sure that it will not be bad for your health. An awareness campaign is required for this. Also, with the growing middle class and thereby, increasing demand for ready-to-cook, ready-to-eat food, the industry is going to treble in few years. Thus, global players are coming in, to tap the Indian market.

Can we get more details on the mega food parks, what will be the state-wise break-up and are there more such projects in the pipeline?

Forty-two mega food parks are coming across the country scattered in almost every State. Only some North-East states and Uttar Pradesh have not been covered as yet. Recently, there was one cancellation, so, I have given an advertisement that only uncovered states can apply.

Are there more in the pipeline?

No, at the moment, we are looking at completion of this project because this scheme was launched in 2008, but from 2008 to 2014, only two had become operational whereas, we operationalised six more in two years and today nine are functional as I have recently inaugurated one more. Two more will become operational this year and within 20 months all 42 will become functional. So, no point coming up with more parks, until we complete these 42 parks properly.

So, what is the idea behind organising the World Food India, 2017?

Looking at the proactive policies of the Prime Minister in the sector, I found that when I go abroad, either people were unaware, and if they knew, there was a lot of interest. So, things like India being the fastest growing country in the world today and with the highest amount of FDI coming in the country, looking at ease of doing business, GST, transparency and eliminating red tapism and other measures have helped people see a new India, and thus, they are interested in coming and tapping the huge market. On the other hand, the markets in the Western countries are either stagnating or shrinking. Also, we are geographically located close to some food-importing nations and they are interested in sourcing from India. They are interested in joint ventures, which is a great way as the industry gets to learn new methods and modern know-how. So, I thought to give them a platform where they can meet like-minded partners. Thus, the idea of World Food India (3-5 November), where every state is going to participate showcasing their raw material, industry, and policies. All big countries will be there with the top people of the food sector looking for partnerships.

How can government-industry synergy ensure that there is no food wastage?

We are working towards zero tolerance for food wastage. The more gets processed, the less will be wasted. We are committed to creating that infrastructure in which a farmer doesn’t have to throw what he could not sell in the market but can process it or store it. Today, states are fighting for water, and the farmer uses water to grow that crop and if it is not sold, it gets wasted while on the other hand, there are people sleeping hungry as well. So, we have to make that grid to ensure that a farmer has the infrastructure to save his produce.

How are states responding to your call to take up food processing?

I am getting a positive response because, at the end of the day, we are an agrarian country. Every state makes an attempt to enhance farmer productivity and they are realising that value addition is essential for this to happen.

How many states have come up with portfolios for food processing?

Some of them already have that. We are moving ahead with a food processing policy that will make it mandatory for every government to follow that policy.

So, by when can we expect it?

The draft policy is ready to be sent to the cabinet and it will be circulated among various ministries.

Could you discuss its salient features?

There should be a separate department; a single window clearance system; it should be treated at par with agriculture; agro-processing; encouraging  contract farming; and establishing linkages  between farmers and the industry --  and many of these will make the life easier for the food processing industry.

Can the states that were the beneficiaries of the green revolution take the lead here?

Of course, I come from the land where the Green Revolution was brought about. So, I have been pushing it there but due to weather conditions, farmers are in a dismal state. However, farming in Punjab is progressing; a state that is just 2 per cent of India produces 40 per cent of the food for the country.

What are the challenges that you are facing?

I would say, awareness about the schemes, more than anything else. There are some states that are pro-active while there are some states like my own, which doesn’t even reply to my letters.

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