Violating Swadeshi Spirit, Impeding Progress of Small Food Units

SME Food Processing

Recently some new threats have been emerging for small scale food processing units in India. To give a recent example, this year new directives have been issued for mandatory six-month lab tests for them which can raise their costs and reduce their viability to a significant extent. Food fortification requirements being pushed relentlessly by the authorities in recent times can also have a very adverse impact on small scale food processing units, apart from their other adverse impacts.

A special feature of the freedom movement in India was that it had a very important component of various constructive activities. Among these, promotion of khadi and village/cottage scale industries was a very important component. Within this, small food processing units got a lot of emphasis and Mahatma Gandhi personally advocated these for their potential of providing more healthy and nutritious food to people as well as to farm animals. Now an additional advantage of local, decentralized food processing is that this reduces food miles travelled which is considered very important for environment protection. The concept of increasing village self-reliance, which is integral to the spirit of swadeshi and swaraj, also has increasing importance in the context of more pressing needs of environment protection and climate change mitigation as well as adaptation. Village and cottage units, small-scale food processing units inevitably use less capital intensive technology and are capable of generating much more employment. What is more, India’s villages have possessed rich traditional skills for various kinds of food processing, some of which are still very relevant and others can be changed to suit present needs better while retaining their core benefits of providing better nutrition and health as well as higher and more creative employment and rural entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately, despite all the lip sympathy paid to swadeshi and swaraj, the country has been fast moving in the direction of dominance of food processing by big business and reduced role for cottage and small scale, village-based and decentralized units. This can be seen in almost any rural region of the country. What is most unfortunate is that harmful, even addictive foods promoted by big business are spreading rapidly among children, adolescents and youth, to a lesser extent among others too.

The big business interests have the advantage of their brands being promoted at great expense by powerful, often unethical advertising campaigns, and on top of this they get subsidized in several other ways as well, directly and indirectly, making the best of a system that is increasingly more and more biased, perhaps even rigged, in favor of big business.

It is in this wider perspective that the increasing trend of policy makers using ever changing standards of various kinds to harm small-scale food processing units while making the food sector increasingly more favorable for big business must be seen. This may take the form of arbitrary (and even harmful) fortification norms, or imposing excessive lab testing on small units, increasing such costs beyond their capacity.

In international trade the developed rich countries have been using arbitrary norms of various standards for a long time to harm the interests of the Global South. Developing countries should resist this, but how will they get the moral strength for this if within the country somewhat similar tactics are used to harm the small and cottage scale units. While giving up such harmful policies, the government should adopt policies which help the decentralized, cottage and small-scale food processing units in rural areas and close to them.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food, Man over Machine and When the Two Streams Met.


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