After IT, BT, it is time for FT revolution: Sahai

February 28th, 2009 - 1:37 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghNew Delhi, Feb 28 (IANS) “Doctor sahab, aap hamein kahaan chutney-bhaji mein phasaya (why have you got me stuck in this chutney-bhaji business)?” Minister of State for Food Processing Industries Subodh Kant Sahai had asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he was given this portfolio after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government came to power.

And the prime minister had replied: “Sahai sahab, you can become the backbone of the agriculture sector.”

Now, as his term comes to an end with elections round the corner, Sahai leaves with the belief that the food processing sector is the next big thing in the Indian economy.

“We have seen the IT (information technology) and BT (biotechnology) revolutions, but I feel the time has come for FT, that is, the food technology era,” Sahai told IANS in an interview.

Asserting that he had taken the food processing sector out of the dustbin during his five-year tenure, he said: “We have helped the sector take off. But what is needed now is proper navigation.”

The sector, which was growing at 6-7 percent in 2003-04, is today logging a growth rate of 13.7 percent despite the global economic meltdown.

“Khaana to chahiye hi chahiye. Yeh industry kabhi bandh nahin hoga (Food will be needed at all times; so this industry will never close down),” said Sahai.

According to the “India Food Report 2008″ of markets data provider Research and Markets, the Indian food industry is estimated at over $182 billion, and accounts for about two-thirds of the country’s total retail sector.

According to Sahai, the sector has the potential to attract over Rs.100,000 crore (Rs.1 trillion) in investments.

India is the world’s largest producer of milk and has the potential to become the second largest producer of dairy products. It is also the second largest producer of fruit and vegetables, and the third largest producer of foodgrains.

Additionally, it also has the largest number of livestock and the third largest output of fish.

Yet, while processing of food to consumable standards is at levels of up to 80 percent in some developed countries, India lags far behind: its share is just 1.5 percent in the $3.2-billion global exports.

The food processing industries ministry has prepared a “Vision 2015″ plan, which, it hopes, will ensure a three-fold growth in the processed food sector, raise India’s share in the world food processing market to three percent, increase the level of processing of perishables from six percent to 20 percent, and raise value addition of such products from 20 percent to 35 percent.

The ministry has drawn up a series of schemes under the 11th Five-Year Plan.

These include establishing a slew of mega food parks which will serve as hubs for transporting agricultural produce in processed form or otherwise from the farm gate to the retail outlet, bringing Indian processed food quality to global standards, establishing training institutes to provide skill, and promoting research and development (R&D) in food processing.

But challenges remain. For one, the minister wants the states to amend their Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act so that tax limits on farm produce come down.

“I have made the sector completely taxless, be it central excise, customs duty, etc. I want the states to amend the APMC Act so that the tax on perishable produce is limited to zero percent and that on non-perishables to a maximum of four percent.”

Sahai also wants the states to draw up a separate food processing industries policy. “The food processing industry is dependent on perishable goods. So you cannot have a policy that is based on the cement or steel sector.”

This apart, Sahai feels the sector needs more budgetary allocation and activities.

Stating that earlier ministers and bureaucrats were reluctant to stay in the food processing industries ministry for long, he said: “But now, I feel, anybody who is given this ministry will enjoy (working here).”

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