Millennium Post

‘Indians waste as much food as The United Kingdom consumes’

How has been your experience in the ministry so far?
It has been a learning experience-enjoyable as well as enlightening . I realised that there are huge challenges and also huge potential. The challenges excite me as does the potential but the quantum of work that needs to be done to overcome those challenges is what is going to be the real test.  Our government is looking at controlling food inflation which is a huge priority sector even for the government as well as for the consumer. One of the biggest reasons for food inflation is food wastage. In fact if you look at the statistics Indians waste as much food as consumed in the United Kingdom. In terms of figures it is 44,000 crores worth of perishables which are wasted every year.

How do you plan to control the food wastage menace? Is there a plan you have in mind?
Actually on this our ministry did a study a few years back of which the results came in 2009-10. The study says that 18 per cent of food gets wasted but this number has obviously gone up after that. After that I decided to make a food map (Kaur has two in her office)  which shows exactly what fruits and vegetables are grown where. Then we looked up which are the ones that cause maximum inflation and how do we map what is the infrastructure needed to stop that wastage? That is something we have focused in the ministry in the last couple of months.  Now there will be another study on the required infrastructure. Even until then, I know where I need to focus in the ongoing government schemes. 

It is all a huge process. For example even setting up a mega food park or a cold chain does not happen overnight; it takes at least two years of gestation period. Even if we look at cold chains, there is shortage there too. We do not even have 50 per cent of what is required and there are no figure to tell what is the amount required as such.

Talk about your vision for the ministry of food processing industries?
My ministry works as a catalyst. It has potential for doing a couple of things  which are the need of the hour. Firstly, bring down food wastage. Food is being wasted at the harvest point and during transportation. If that same food which is wasted can get processed, it would mean it could either be available in its raw form or in bottled form at a price which is affordable for the aam aadmi. So if the prices of onion start soaring, then the government and consumer don't have to worry on how they will make the ends meet, because at the same time onion paste would be available maybe say at 5 rupees. This stops food wastage and consumers will get it at a better price. This would also uplift the farmer. At the moment India processes 2-3 per cent of its fruits and vegetables and the kind of potential that we have is not being utilised. Dairy processing is the highest at about 36 per cent and then you have fruit and vegetables at 2-3 per cent which according to me is nil.

You have spoken about reducing the loss percentage of fruits and vegetables. How do you plan to achieve that?

For that lets take up the example of tomatoes which are seasonally abundant. Sometimes tomato rates are so low that when there is a glut, it is not even worth the while for the farmer to transport them and take it to the mandi. Thus he is forced to throw it on the streets because there is such low value for the crop. Now that is the time when it should be kept stored in a cold chain and processed later. This will definitely increase the shelf life of the tomato. The other thing is that each food processing unit can actually be a hub for skill training. In our country 65 per cent of the youth is below the age of 35.

That is the age when you need a job because you have  your own family to support.  In fact a country will progress only if the youth is empowered, productive, skilled and not a liability. To make them able to stand on their own feet, is why skill development is a huge focus. Even when you set up a skill development institute you need basic education to get admission there but in a food processing unit you can be utilised even if you are illiterate. You can get hands-on training even if you are not from an educational background.

They can get hands-on training in sorting, grading and washing among other sorts of jobs. Each processing unit is a potential skill development centre. I am looking at the government providing some kind of incentive to every processing industry as the more you train, the more benefit you will get. I am sure they will hire the best of the lot but in the end they will be skilled youth who can manage to get a job. The processing industry can then uplift the farmer, give skilled youth force and earn revenue for the country and the state. It is a catalyst which will address some of the key needs of the hour.

What are the changes that you have envisaged for the ministry?
Changes are many, for example the food processing parks which were introduced by the earlier regime have not taken of. If 40 of them were allotted then barely 2 of them are running and they too are not delivering their 100 per cent. This goes to show that this scheme was a non-starter. First of all to ensure that this scheme works, states should be given  freedom to take decisions to upgrade any facility or to put up a new one. Food processing parks was a centrally sponsored scheme where the spending was next to nil in the last three years. I have revived it in the last three months and have brought it up to 50 per cent of its annual output.

In this budget we have got a 2,000 crore corpus in the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), which is going to be used especially for setting up food park units.  Also the excise duty has been brought down from 10 to 6 per cent. Thus in the first month only, we took these steps to give the industry a big push. Processing is something where in you have to talk to everyone  as it ranges from the big huge Pepsi to the bread-wala and the biscuit maker. You have to talk to everyone to find out how to tweak the policy so that no one gets left out from it.

What have the stakeholders discussed about the problems they are facing?

The biggest problem they were facing in the food processing industry was with the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) which doesn't come under my ministry but is under the health ministry. Main problem for them was to get clearances from them. They were facing bottlenecks for over a year before they could get clearances.  So I took it up with the health minister and we have taken it further. Unfortunately someone has gone to court on this issue and we are trying to sort it out. Once this issue gets sorted, it will be a huge relief for food processing industry. Also red-tapism is a problem that exists in states  and not at the centre.

What have been the ministry's achievements till now ( the 100 day report card)?
In 100 days I would say that the big ticket achievement has been getting 2,000 crores for the food processing industry which is going to give a huge boost  to my mega food parks project. Having the food map is very helpful. We have also made a food portal on the website for investors who can access it. Even if someone overseas is interested in processing in India, through this food map they will know which is the state I need to talk to and what are the norms for setting it up.

We have also modified the guidelines to attract big and small players and have also included state corporations in our mega food park scheme. We have got almost 82 applicants who have shown interest in setting up mega food parks. It all depends on what budget I am given by finance and that is the number I will be able to give out. It will be a challenge to give these out to people doing it in a transparent manner who will make sure that these parks come up. Only when food parks come up will the farmers have a place to get  their stuff processed. I am also working on a couple of other schemes so that smaller people can make use of it. We are also focusing on skill development.

NIFTEM (National Institute of Food Technology Entrepreneurship and Management)  which is an institute under the ministry will look into this. For example if we speak to Nestle and we ask them what is the kind of manpower you need to hire? They will be directed to NIFTEM.  We are looking at providing skill to 10,000 youth in the next one year. This is being worked out with all different sectors.

How has your experience of working with Prime minister Narendra Modi been? How do you perceive him as a leader?

The best thing is that he is a grass-root worker who has risen from the ground. He knows the issues that our country faces from the bottom to the top. The fact he turned Gujarat around, shows  his experience of making things work. He is a decisive PM with an amazing vision. If everybody is talking on level 6 he suddenly takes the targets up to level 9. That is what is needed, the push and drive which will remove this paralysis which has been there and this chalta hai attitude. The country was just functioning with no one actually at the helm of affairs before this.  But now in just 4 months from being a national leader he has also emerged as a world leader. I think it has been an amazing learning experience for me.
According to reports, is there a centralisation of power with the Prime minister in the present government? What is your take on the issue?

I would say there has been a lobby of course with the opposition  behind it. They want to portray him in a certain perception and they have gone all out to do that. They did it before and after the elections but he came with a thumping majority and wiped the opposition out. Then the next thing they did was to make him look out to be some kind of dictator. This amuses me as there is no such thing which has transpired. Even for a novice like me, he is very patient and hears me out. No matter at what length who speaks, everyone is given a chance to voice their views. There is always a consensus. He is flexible and not rigid and makes sure to take everyone on board.

Is there an unsaid directive from the PM for minsiters, to not interact with the media frequently?

 No, there was nothing as such but the PM was very clear since the beginning that our agenda will not be set by the media. Our agenda will be set by what the people expect. He was very clear from day one that we have to deliver not with words but with our work and actions. It is a government which is only working and the focus is on delivering. This is what leadership is really about  and he pushes you to higher targets and that is what was needed in our country.

Does the PM, in order to make his ministers achieve targets,  sets deadlines for them?

Every minister is given a vision and we have to deliver on those targets. He takes regular reviews from each of us. This is what is important that we have a leader guiding us ahead. It is like a driver in the seat who has a clear vision and is taking us all ahead. He is an interactive PM and there is nothing dictatorial about him at all. What is commendable really is that he is a first time PM but he has handled it all so very well.

How was your meeting with PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi?
This was yet another case of how the media incorrectly reports facts. When I met her, we talked about what they were making or what the processing industry was making and how we could make that healthier and more nutritious? It was just a social courtesy call she had made when she came to meet me. Nothing beyond that. No media was called to cover the meeting. We mostly spoke about what young children should be consuming?

Was there any conversation about  lessening sugar content in soft drinks?
In fact it was Indra who discussed with me about healthier alternatives. There was no discussion on sugar content. I do not know where that came from. It is very unfortunate that such reports come out without knowing what was actually discussed.

Tell us more about the issue on using processed food in mid-day meals? Did you have an altercation with HRD minister Smriti Irani on the same?

This is another example on how facts are misreported. Indra and I were discussing about packing food in tiffins for our children when they leave for schools.  I have three kids and the problem I have faced in all these years is the morning time, when they are getting ready for school. The problem is what do you put in their tiffin. They are fed up of the parathas and sandwiches. So I said if there is potential for healthy nutritious tiffin food then we should focus on that.

How is tiffin food related to mid-day meal? Is there any connection between them at all?

I am talking about a working urban mother, there was no mention of midday meal at all. Where is the question of mid-day meal coming in this talk, I don't understand. About the report of Smriti and me slugging it out, the next morning we had a cabinet meeting and we were sitting together and I told her that I had not talked about mid-day meals at all.  Before I could complete, she said I know and I have told the media that I have heard no such thing and have nothing to say about it. Media completely made up this story.

How do you manage work between the ministry and your constituency?

What has taken a backseat during the last four months is my constituency as I was always present there earlier. But now you cannot leave your office for more than 3 days a month. Weekends is when my husband comes home so it is very difficult to visit the constituency. I have a lot to learn here. I am now running the constituency on remote-control mode. Luckily for 5 years, I have been running it, so systems are in place. Yes my presence is not there but at least I am ensuring that development is taking place and is not being stopped as I continue to monitor it from here. This is a tougher job as from a state, it now involves an entire country which I have to focus on.

You have raised the issue of junk food, tell us about that?

I think that is something which cannot be wished away by a law, as there is no kid who is going to give up his french-fries or cake because a law has come in or that the said thing is not available in his vicinity. Healthy eating habits need to be inculcated in them. Industry needs to introduce healthier food options. This will be good as mothers will opt for it but to think a child will stop eating chocolate, candy or will stop consuming cola drinks is very difficult. I have tried it with my own kids and it doesn't work.

How do you manage work and family?
 The biggest sacrifice has been by my kids and that is my biggest regret. Managing work and children is very tough and they suffer as I do not get to spend time with them. I really feel bad about it as by the time I am home, they are asleep.

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