India tops food production but millions starve: Harsimrat Kaur banks on investment, technology to get food on plate

On New Delhi railway station, one might run into homeless children who call the Rajdhani their mother and the Shatabdi their father. They appear on the platform to scavenge-hunt stale rice, cold dal, sour curd, and any edible food the train discards. Hunger is painfully abundant in a country like India, which in the last 10 years, has slipped six positions from 94 to 100 (out of 119 countries) on the World Hunger Index.

As per World Bank research, India has one of the world's largest population of children suffering from malnutrition, almost double the corresponding number for sub-Saharan Africa. India is also the second largest producer of food in the world, and the largest producer of fruits and vegetables, milk, cereal and aquatic products. Why then is there such glaring disparity in numbers?

Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Union minister of food processing industries, said, "The problem is because of critical gaps in infrastructure. Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia process 80 percent of their food. India produces enough, but it doesn't reach the people. In other countries, wastage happens on the plate, but in India, it happens at the harvest, transportation and storage stages. But through technology and foreign investment, this can be fixed."

Almost 25-30 percent of agricultural produce is estimated to be wasted in India, while only seven percent of the total perishable produce is processed, which is abysmal compared to countries like the US (65 percent), Philippines (78 percent) and China (23 percent).

To attract interest and intervention by foreign players in our food sector, Badal's ministry made an official announcement for 'World Food India 2017', a three-day food exhibition that will host 2,000 participants and 200 companies from 30 countries. It will give 18 ministerial and business delegations a platform to bolster investment and trade. The conclave will be held from 3-5 November on the India Gate lawns, and is expected to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. CEOs of leading Indian and global food chains — including ITC, Amazon, Walmart, Nestle, Metro Cash & Carry India, Cargill and Patanjali — were present at the curtain raiser event.

India tops food production but millions starve: Harsimrat Kaur banks on investment, technology to get food on plate

Harsimrat Kaur Badal. Firstpost/Pallavi Rebbapragada

A big promise will be made on a colossal scale. But how will it be realised in India's 127 agro-climatic zones located far away from the sound and fury generated in New Delhi?

"When I took charge of the ministry (in 2014), I noticed a lot of policy promise but no ground impact. From 2008 to 2014, only two Mega Food Parks were operationalised. In two years, I have operationalised six," Harsimrat said.

The Mega Food Park scheme is a mechanism that links agricultural production to the market by bringing together farmers, processors and retailers in order to ensure maximising value addition, minimising wastage, increasing farmers' income and creating employment opportunities, especially in villages. These are designed to create modern infrastructure facilities for food processing along the value chain from farm to market with strong forward and backward linkages through a cluster-based approach.

Common facilities and enabling infrastructure is created at the Central Processing Centre and facilities for primary processing and storage is created near the farm in the form of Primary Processing Centers (PPCs) and Collection Centers (CCs). "Under the scheme, the government offers subsidies up to Rs 50 crore per Mega Food Park project," Badal said, adding that all 12 Mega Food Parks will be operational within two years.

The first one, Srini Mega Food Park, opened in Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh in 2012. Currently, nine of them are functional namely Patanjali Food and Herbal Park in Haridwar, Srini Food Park in Chittoor, North East Mega Food Park in Nalbari, International Mega Food Park in Fazilka, Integrated Food Park in Tumkur, Jharkhand Mega Food Park in Ranchi, Indus Mega Food Park in Khargoan, Jangipur Bengal Mega Food Park in Murshidabad and MITS Mega Food Park in Rayagada, Odisha.

Foundation stones have also been laid for two new Mega Food Parks in Kerala. "In a targeted fashion, we are setting up infrastructure for farmers to move forward. There are also 101 cold chains that were sanctioned three months ago and another 50 will be operationalised soon. We are also working on a food processing policy that should be finalised shortly," she added.

With a population of 1.3 billion and a retail sector that's expected to treble by 2020, India is a vast, demand-driven market and is attractive for foreign players. "We believe in the principle of Videshi paise se swadeshi bhala. Foreign Direct Investment, which has increased to over 40 percent in the last year, will grow further. This year, we expect $10 billion worth of investment at World Food India. After GST, the ease of doing business has gone up and India, being one of the fast growing economies in the world, generates a huge amount of interest among global players," she said.

Kaur added that many companies are coming to India to partner Indian companies on social responsibility and skill development. "Denmark and Germany have already shown an interest, while Netherlands is also partnering through universities. In fact, the Netherlands ambassador has already partnered with apple growers and is doing vertical apple farming to increase acreage and yield. So, right from machine manufacturing to food safety to testing to retail, there is huge potential in the entire chain," she adds.

Germany, Japan and Denmark are partner countries at World Food India, while Italy and Netherlands are focus countries for the mega event, which is being organised to position India as a global food factory and a global sourcing hub.

The other consequence of World Food India will be a more enhanced focus on technology. The hunger index is associated with our storage and nascent processing, Badal explained, and gave the example of tomato farmers who can value add and turn their yield into puree instead of having to watch their produce perish. Tomato is a summer crop that requires a temperate range of 26-30 degree Celsius and 14-19 degree Celsius during the day and night respectively. One reason why tomato prices surged was the adversities faced by tomato farmers. This includes weak supply chains, low quality seedlings and a forced switch towards cultivating of sugarcane, maize and cauliflower.

In Badal's own state of Punjab, since 2000, at least 1,674 farmers committed suicide in 22 districts. As per a Punjab University report, Muktsar is top of the list by a distance, with 825 suicides, whereas the number is 874 for the six others: Faridkot, Fatehgarh Sahib, Hoshiarpur, Patiala, Rupnagar and SAS Nagar.

"Farmers are distressed. One of the major reasons is rising prices and environmental changes. Half the country suffers from drought and the other half from floods, and the first casualty are the crops. In Punjab, there never used to be such kinds of farmer suicides. It's basically because of false promises that were made to farmers in the run-up to the elections. The farmers have now figured out that it's not happening. But, while they were waiting for these things to happen, they stopped repaying on their loans to the banks. It's a catch-22 situation," she told Firstpost.

But does she have an on-ground situation for the problem? "In the 'Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sampada Yojana', our government has allocated Rs 6,000 of infrastructure to be created in the next three years. This is a bouquet of seven schemes, out of which one is the backward-forward linkage scheme that will turn farmers into agro-producers and move them toward value addition. We'll offer subsidies of up to Rs 5 crore in the food processing sector," she replied.

Finally, linking food wastage with the encompassing spirit of the 'Swachh Bharat Abhiyan' is the new #NoWasteOnMyPlate campaign. "Seventy percent of what lies in the garbage dumps is food garbage and that adds to pollution," she informed.

Besides, there are other issues like the anaerobic decomposition of organic material in flooded rice fields that produces methane. Last year, farmers were even held accountable for the alarming rise in smog in the capital post Diwali. In fact, 11 farmers from Bathinda and Barnala districts of Punjab were recently booked for burning paddy stubble against the orders of the district magistrate and penalties were imposed in 1,406 cases of stubble burning in Haryana. The farmers said crops are no longer harvested by hand so the plant is only cut from the spike, and thus cannot be consumed by animals. If the farmers are given only 15 days to sow the next plant alongside marketing and selling the first one, they'll be left with no option but to burn the spike.

The target of doubling farmers' income by 2022 and reducing post-harvest losses requires not just strategic but a substantive effort in a country where over 58 percent of rural households depend on agriculture as their principal means of livelihood; where agriculture, along with fisheries and forestry, is among the largest contributors to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Millions of destinies are tied to a handful of policies and the manner in which Badal's ministry chooses to implement them.

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Updated Date: Oct 17, 2017 18:00:10 IST

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