From the Conference Room at Rue Eiffel Tower
This column is being typed in the UIC conference Hall (which belongs to the International Union of Railways) and has a splendid view of the iconic motif of Paris—the Eiffel Tower. Paris is known for so many landmarks the Champs Elysee, the Louvre, the public sculpture, including the statue of liberty, the coffee shops, the Notre Dame, the Bastille, boulevards, the public sculptures, the parks, the streets, the Seine River, the cruise, the Lido and the Moulin Rouge and the lovely bookshop: Shakespeare and company. It has also become an important convention centre, and on any single day there are scores of international conferences, and the hotels are stretched for service, especially as the unions enforce the 35 hour a week norm! On the positive side, pedestrians, cyclists and now eco-vans (cycle rickshaws) get priority over cars, and given the parking problems in the main ‘rues’ (streets), Paris and prefer walking or taking the Metro.
However, before this becomes a column on Paris, and loses the focus from Agro-watch, it allows this writer to explain the background of his Paris sojourn. The (Indian) national centre for cold-chain development (NCCD) which is currently headed by this writer was signing an MoU with its French counterpart, Cemafroid which has now completed 55 years of its existence. Cemafroid was established in 1958 by the French Ministry of Agriculture, but over the years has evolved into an organisation of stakeholders. Thus while the French Ministry of Agriculture works very closely with Cemafroid, it has its own budget, its own employees and drives its own agenda. Similar arrangements are in vogue in Germany, England, Holland and Denmark, among others, and mark a very healthy collaboration between the state and the private sector. Most importantly, it is based on mutual trust and appreciation of each other’s role, a high degree of transparency, and strict adherence to rules of the game. The obvious question that crops up is: why can’t we replicate this model for India not just for cold chain, but for several other domains ranging from bee keeping and honey to saffron to processed food manufacturers and exporters? Why is our model so dependent on subsidy regimes? Why don’t we empower our corporates to bring in efficiencies of scale and scope and look to the world as the global market? When will our NCCD raise enough subscriptions from its members and generate revenues from its services to become a truly independent think tank for the sector?
Let me attempt an answer. The reason is “trust deficit”. The government does not trust the industry, and vice versa. The government feels that it has the responsibility to ‘intervene’ at every step but in most cases, it misinterprets this intervention into interdiction. Conversely, the industry that is obviously domain masters in their matters, tends to view the government as a source of easy funds rather than as direction setters on a national scale. The aspiration is that the public agenda of the government and the private development of industry have to work in tandem and in synergy for the overall national good. Such collaboration can happen through greater and freer interaction where the concerns are freely shared. Every problem need not have a solution… sometimes working around a roadblock is the best resolution. Working together requires trust. This implies that both the government and the private sector take the first steps together to understand that in the long run only cost effective and efficient solutions will work. Given the electricity supply position in our country, industry ought to evolve ‘off grid’ solutions to provide the real boost to the sector by working closely with National innovation Foundation and the Renewable Energy Resources Ministry. Indeed, they have to be roped in as important stakeholders in the cold chain infrastructure.
This brings us to another point. Why are the French (as also the Dutch, the Belgians, Germans and Israelis) so keen to collaborate with us? The reason is simple. They see our potential; they see that the future is here. As explained by Pawanexh Kohli, the Chief Advisor of NCCD in his lead presentation on India as the next destination for cold chain the country has emerged as the leading producer of dairy and meat products besides an impressive production of horticulture and allied sectors. There have been major gains in our ability to implement programmes on the ground – the eradication of polio is a good example. Among other things, polio eradication needs an efficient cold chain. From three hundred thousand cases a year in the eighties to none in the past two years shows that given political will and administrative commitment, it can be done. The challenge now is to upscale it in the food sector. The economic fundamentals are strong certainly stronger than in Europe and USA and there was great scope for economic partnerships between technology providers and primary producers. In fact, the Indian market was growing so rapidly that it made a lot of sense to shift the production base to India to ensure better interface with the users as the ground conditions and requirements for the post harvest management were different from Europe.
This could also become the hub for extending PHM and refrigeration services to South Asia and burgeoning Africa. Moreover as the ‘value’ of the produce types which are amenable to cold chain is rising, it made more sense to invest money to persevere the quality and extend its shelf life, rather than letting it waste. In simpler terms, as prices of fruits and vegetables touch the roof, it made greater sense to invest in refrigeration, logistics and transport than ever before. Using technology and associated operating energy costs allowed the producer the farmer to extend his reach into buying markets that he could never access. The effective use of cold chain is not merely to extend storage times but to open new pipe lines and trade with far away and distant regions.
It is this fundamental benefit that cold chain offers a farmer; the choice to move away from the traditional singular mandi to the multi-buyer landscape. This option to sell to a buyer of choice is through spanning time and seasons or more commonly by allowing safe and direct transit across distances to the consumer.
The European farmer has done it and made good money! It’s now time for India.
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)