‘Our aim is to make processed food easily available to the aam aadmi’

SHISHIR SINHA ADITI NIGAM New Delhi | Updated on July 24, 2014 Published on July 24, 2014

Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Food Processing Industries Minister

We plan to have a national food grid like the power grid: Minister

Food Processing Industries Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, says food processing is close to her heart as she comes from an agriculture-driven State. The 47-year-old Minister sees big potential for food processing across the country and is preparing a national food map. Her plans include creating mega food parks closer to the farmer. Edited Excerpts:

How do you plan to use the ₹2,000-crore fund proposed in the Budget for the sector?

I was surprised to know that one of our flagship programmes to create cluster-based infrastructure close to farmers – mega food parks – has not taken off. Out of 40 mega parks that had been sanctioned, only two were partially operational.

I have held extensive talks with stakeholders. One reason that is holding them back is the lack of incentives. I can provide something from the Ministry. Some stakeholders (bigger companies) said they were looking for something more substantial than ₹50 crore. This could be subvention or help in getting clearances, such as for land.

I spoke to the Finance Minister and requested him to set aside a fund that could be used as tax subvention. This is a win-win for everybody. Industry can get same rate as the farm sector. Because, at the end of day, the aim is to save agriculture produce, which I think the Finance Minister understood and set aside ₹2,000 crore for food processing industry, to be used from Nabard.

I also found that grants being given by the Ministry were for just creating medium-level infrastructure. So I am keen to promote food parks not just in the mega scale, but also in smaller scale. The idea is to have clusters close to farmers’ doorsteps.

Will this fund be used for interest subvention?

That is what I have asked for. Tax benefits are already there – excise duty has been reduced to 6 per cent from 10 per cent. This fund should be used for interest subvention, so that credit can be availed at 7 per cent against 13-14 per cent. This is what I have asked for, but I cannot commit anything till the guidelines come out, hopefully, within a few days.

How many mega food park proposals are in the pipeline?

I am writing to all the Chief Ministers. The aim is to strengthen State cooperatives. As processing takes off, it should pull the farmer along. Every bit of food wasted is natural resources wasted. Studies show that 18 per cent of perishables are being wasted. In reality, the figure may be double of that.

The aim of food processing is also to encourage contract farming, which means industry gets assured produce for the processing, for which it invests in better seeds and techniques that help the farmer, who also gets a fixed, assured price.

How are your plans for a National Food Grid shaping up?

Until you know what is grown in the entire country and where the infrastructure is required, how are you going to put a system in place? So, I decided to make a food map, which will help us know what is needed where. So, first, we will make a food map then we will start working on the infrastructure. Our eventual aim is to have a national food grid, like the power grid.

But, unless States delist fruits and vegetables from the APMC Act, how will this concept work?

About 16 States are already in the process of delisting fruits and vegetables from the Act. They have amended the Act partially or totally. Food inflation can also be controlled by food processing. Onion prices are touching ₹50-60/kg. Processed onions should be available, say, for ₹25. So neither the Government nor the consumer is worried.

When you go abroad, you pick up onion paste, tomato paste etc. Fresh food is slightly expensive there. In our case, processed food is more for the elite. That perception has to change. Processed food should be easily available to the aam aadmi. Besides stopping wastage, it will control inflation as well.

Cold chains are facing power problems. What is the solution?

Infrastructure is beyond my means, because power is a big problem. For example, Uttar Pradesh has huge potential in fruits, such as mango and guava, but these rot due to lack of cold storage facilities.

The solution lies in having a reefer (refrigerated) truck scheme. Take the example of apple. We found that wastage of apples is very high in J&K and Himachal Pradesh. In J&K, farmers wait for trucks before they start plucking, as trucks take time to reach because of the distances. When the trucks arrive, they pluck raw and ripe apples together and load them. This leads to a lot of wastage. In Himachal Pradesh, it is the other way round. They pluck everything before the transport arrives. By the time the fruits are loaded, some of it starts rotting.

If reefer trucks are used, the fruits will be refrigerated from the farm gate itself. Studies show that maximum loss is at the harvest and transport levels. There is 30 per cent food wastage in the world, but the difference between the West and us is that their wastage is on the plate, while ours is at the harvest and transportation levels.

I have also spoken to the Power Ministry seeking subsidised solar power for use in cold storage facilities.

What about your plan to promote traditional foods, such as sarson da saag from Punjab, khakra from Gujarat or litti chokha from Bihar?

This is what I meant when I talked about strengthening state cooperatives, which exist in every State but are being run in ‘sarkari babu’ style in the way packaging is done. They will need to upgrade technology and packaging, so that traditional food of one region is available across the country and we can brand these as ‘Brand India’. These can even be exported among expats, because that is a huge market. State agencies cannot tap the market on their own, so we can build the infrastructure for them.

Published on July 24, 2014

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