Post-Covid, India set to emerge as world food factory, says Harsimrat Kaur Badal
Responding to a set of questions from Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak, Shiromani Akali Dal MP from Bathinda on Monday outlined her priorities, sounded optimistic on India’s post-Covid-19 potential in global food exports and sharply criticised the Capt Amarinder Singh government’s handling of the crisis in Punjab.Updated: Apr 28, 2020 11:08 IST
Amid the coronavirus-enforced lockdown since March 25, Union minister of food processing industries Harsimrat Kaur Badal has been pulling out all the stops to deal with the most critical challenge on her plate: keeping the food supply chain up and running. Responding to a set of questions from Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak, Shiromani Akali Dal MP from Bathinda on Monday outlined her priorities, sounded optimistic on India’s post-Covid-19 potential in global food exports and sharply criticised the Capt Amarinder Singh government’s handling of the crisis in Punjab. Edited excerpts:
When you look at the nationwide essential supplies people need to sustain themselves under lockdown, what share does the food processing industry have in that big piece?
The priority of the government was to ensure food security in the face of all challenges and disruptions. In this regard, the role of the ministry of food processing industries (MoFPI) is the most critical. Any disruption in the availability of food will lead to what are called ‘food riots’. Nutritious food helps the immune system to fight infections. This crisis has come in the middle of the harvesting season for crops such as wheat and perishable crops like tomatoes and mangoes. The processing of crops extends their shelf life and ensures food security. We are experiencing a realignment of the global supply chains in the wake of the Covid crisis. The Indian food processing industry is gearing up to be the food factory of the world as new opportunities are emerging for export of Indian products.
Chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh, who has been practising social distancing in the past also, has failed to lead from the front by assessing problems and providing solutions.
What are the challenges for the food processing industry at different levels of manufacturing, storing in cold chains, transportation and distribution?
One of the major challenges faced by the industry has been varied interpretation of directions of the central government by the local authorities at the ground level. This has led to the disruption of raw material supplies, consignments being held up and industries not being able to operate.
To resolve these issues, my ministry has set up a Covid helpline to address industry problems. Nodal officers have been assigned to coordinate with the state authorities to resolve the issues faced by the industry. I speak to state food processing ministers every week to get feedback on the ground situation.
What steps are you taking to keep prices under check?
We are working with the industry to ensure full capacity utilisation by resolving problems faced by them at the local level. We have aligned the infrastructure of cold storage and warehousing created by 800 plus projects supported by the MoFPI with the food processing industry and the ministry of agriculture to provide adequate storage of perishables in the medium term.
Would you say that it is boom time for the food processing industry, given that consumption has continued, if not increased, and anxious buyers are lapping up the goods?
This is a time of conservative optimism for the industry. It is a fact that the food industry is better placed than other sectors of the economy as far as demand is concerned. New avenues are opening up in the export sector as well. The challenge is to ensure that the fruit and vegetable crop of the farmers is purchased and that there is adequate supply to the units processing these products. In addition, uninterrupted supply of ancillary inputs like packaging material has to be ensured and the logistics for retail has to be made completely operational. In the words of the Prime Minister, this is a time to “reform and transform” to cater to the new normal.
The Punjab government is creating a smokescreen by harping on a central package to divert attention from its failures. Lies are being spread about the central aid to the state.
Since flights, both domestic and international, have been suspended, what impact is it having on the export of these food items, or import of ingredients used in manufacturing?
In my interactions with food product exporters, concerns have been raised about factors delaying export consignments. These are being caused due to restrictions the world over. I have already taken up the issues with commerce minister Piyush Goyal. The government has ensured a seamless supply chain for perishable goods such as milk, meat, fish, vegetables and fruits. Indian Railways has been running freight trains for perishable goods from the producer to the market. The civil aviation ministry has operated special flights on both domestic and international routes.
Is anxiety about the transmission of Covid-19 through food items throwing up any challenges in terms of the acceptability of Indian products in the international market? After all, India exports a lot of meat products.
The handling of the Covid-19 threat by the Indian government has been appreciated by global agencies such as World Health Organisation. As a result of the proactive steps by the government, today we are in a much better position than even developed countries. Post-Covid, India is emerging as an alternate destination for the world to fulfil its food needs. Some exporters are already looking at opportunities beyond traditional markets. We will emerge stronger as a result of our efficient handling of the crisis.
What kind of horizon are you envisioning for the food processing industry in the next 30, 60 and 90 days?
Within the next 30 days, our aim is to work towards full capacity utilisation of the food processing industry within the norms of social distancing. We are making all efforts to ensure that perishables from the ongoing harvesting season are preserved by leveraging the infrastructure. In two months, I’ll be working towards policy interventions to make the industry ready for challenges and opportunities in the post-Covid scenario. Our long-term vision is to take up opportunities that have become available as a result of the realignment of the global food supply chains.
How will the global crisis impact foreign direct investment in the food processing sector in India?
In the short term, there may be certain changes in the pattern of fund flows across the globe. In the long run, the Indian food industry will become a favoured destination for global capital as we are the largest producers of food in the world and are capable of fulfilling global food needs.
What is your assessment of the handling of the corona crisis in Punjab?
Well, the Punjab government has failed on all parameters. The average Covid-19 mortality rate in the state, which is nearly 7%, is among the highest in the country. The state has failed to instil confidence in health workers by failing to provide them adequate PPE kits. Testing is still lacking. Patients have been complaining about hygiene and treatment in government hospitals. Farm labourers and daily wagers have not received any benefit. Health workers have not been encouraged with double salary, something like what Haryana has done. There is no relief from power bills for the common man or the industry. The poor are suffering due to the politicisation in the distribution of central food relief. If not for gurdwaras and NGOs, there would have been food riots. Even now farmers are undergoing extreme hardship in mandis.
First, the e-pass system collapsed. Now lifting is not taking place. This is clogging grain markets. Political will is needed in this time of crisis. Sadly, chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh, who has been practising social distancing in the past also, has failed to lead from the front by assessing problems and providing solutions. The Punjab government should have come out with a post-Covid plan to instil confidence in people and the industry to revive the state’s economy.
What is your view on the Amarinder government’s demand for a special central package to tide over the crisis?
The Punjab government is creating a smokescreen by harping on a central package to divert attention from its failures. Lies are being spread that the Centre has given only Rs 71 crore on account of Covid. The Centre has given Rs 112 crore under the National Health Mission, including Rs 71 crore for emergency measures for Covid. The government has been able to spend only 37% of the Rs 71 crore sent to it for emergency purposes. Besides this, the state has received Rs 247 crore under the state disaster management fund. Why has this money not been used till now? Also, the state has an accumulated amount of Rs 6,000 crore under the disaster management fund with it.
The Centre has sanctioned use of this money to combat COVID-19. Why isn’t the state using this amount? This is not all. Punjab has also received close to Rs 4,000 crore under GST compensation. The government should use this money to counter Covid immediately. The Centre has given direct relief to the people by allocating 5kg wheat and one kg pulses per month for 1.4 crore people which is half the population of the state.
How will the Corona crisis change the contours of politics that has always centred on mobilisation and grassroots rapport with people?
There will be a huge overall change in how politics is done in the next two years. I think future elections will be fought on credibility and performance. Governments and parties will be measured by how they reached out to people during the present times and whether they succeeded in mitigating their problems or not. Since rallies and mass programmes will be out, leaders will have to reach out to people through social media. Social distancing will continue for a long time.