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Saturday Interview | Use crisis to push food processing

He was later appointed as a member of the National Disaster Management Authority, where he closely monitored relief and rehabilitation work of the 2004 tsunami in Andaman and Nicobar, the 2008 Kosi floods in Bihar, and the 2009 Kurnool and Mahboobnagar floods in Andhra Pradesh.

Vijay Thakur | New Delhi |

From being a government banker to secretary in the Union agriculture ministry, Mohan Kanda (IAS officer of 1968 batch) served the Government of India for over four decades.

He also worked as chief secretary in Andhra Pradesh in both the Chandrababu Naidu and Y S Rajsekhar Reddy governments. He was later appointed as a member of the National Disaster Management Authority, where he closely monitored relief and rehabilitation work of the 2004 tsunami in Andaman and Nicobar, the 2008 Kosi floods in Bihar, and the 2009 Kurnool and Mahboobnagar floods in Andhra Pradesh.

Interestingly, Kanda started his career as a child actor. He got a doctorate in Mathematics from the Osmania University, even as his areas of interest and expertise include agriculture, rural sector, and disaster management. He has also authored several books.

In an interview with VIJAY THAKUR, Kanda, 74, spoke on how to deal with the problems being faced by farmers amid the Covid-19 crisis.


Q. The Covid-19 crisis has continued to rage. How much will this affect the agriculture sector?

A. Though nothing in the agriculture sector has remained untouched by the Covid-19 crisis, the horticulture and poultry sectors are the worst affected by it. Vegetables and fruits are highly perishable. Any delay in marketing or selling these perishable products would lead to wastage and farmers’ losses.

You can neither put all kinds of vegetables and fruits in cold storage nor it is economical to do so. Unfortunately, over the years we have failed to develop the required infrastructure for processing of vegetables and fruits in our country. This could have prolonged shelf life of fruits and vegetables.

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, the government should take immediate emergency measures to prepare a seamless marketing network for selling highly perishable fruits and vegetables. It is really heart-rending to see poor helpless farmers abandoning their produce on the road for want of buyers.

Even if the government has to procure perishable vegetables and sell it through retail PDS shops, it may do it in association with various NGOs. Something similar to what Mother Dairy is doing in Delhi and some organisations are doing in South Indian cities.

Q. What about the poultry industry – poultry prices have plunged and poultry farmers have to suffer heavy losses?

A. There was fake propaganda against poultry products and some anti-social elements spread rumours that poultry products could cause coronavirus. Government and NECC (National Egg Coordination Committee) must come forward and expose the fake propaganda.

People should know there is no danger in eating poultry products. Eggs and chicken are very important to meet protein requirements of our people. If such false propaganda continues, I am afraid poultry farmers would be forced to shut down their businesses.

Q. Other than procuring vegetables and fruits and selling it directly through PDS, what immediate solution would you offer to help farmers? And what should the long-term strategy of the government be to help farmers face such eventualities?

A. We know that Corona and its effects would continue to hit the agriculture sector for at least coming one year. And this is the right time for the Centre and state governments to prepare a long-term strategy to promote our much-ignored food processing industry.

Packaging and processing of food items should be given a status of essential service so that farmers could do processing and value addition for their vegetables and fruits produce. If possible, dedicated freight corridors should be developed for perishable food items to ensure their seamless transportation to maintain their freshness.

Since the agriculture sector is already a priority sector, I do not think the government would have any problem in it. As regards the transportation of the farmers’ perishable produce, a system should be made in such a way that a farmer could transport his produce using his Aadhaar card to avoid any harassment by police and other authorities.

Q. What about Covid-19’s impact on the Rabi and Kharif crops, which are the backbone of the country’s food security? What should the government do to protect the interest of farmers in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak?

A. I must say we are very lucky. We need not worry about our food security. We have ample food grains, sufficient pulses and reasonable (quantity of ) oilseeds in our stocks and can even export them to earn foreign exchange.

Another good news has come from the Indian Meteorological Department, which has forecast a good monsoon for this year. The availability of fertilisers and its offtake vis-a-vis last year is encouraging. There are certain problems though, which would come up due to Covid-19.

First and foremost is the movement of agriculture labourers. The farmers of Punjab, Haryana and southern states should have agriculture labourers during the harvesting and sowing season. The labourers are mostly from UP and Bihar and it is for the government to ensure they are available when they are required the most.

It must have a detailed plan for the safe movement of labourers during harvesting and sowing. The kind of situation we are seeing is certainly not good.

Something should be done immediately to streamline movement of agriculture labourers and ensure their availability during harvesting and sowing.

Otherwise we might be compromising with our food security and the farm sector’s profitability. It would also impact our inflation, which presently seems to be under control.

Q. How do you rate the performance of the Modi government and state governments during the current Covid-19 crisis? What would you like to suggest to the government?

A. I must admit the Centre and states have been trying to do their best. And those who take decisions might commit some mistakes. But this is not the time to criticise anyone.

The Indian government has done much better than the governments of many prosperous developed nations. The states as well as the central government should take Covid-19 as an opportunity to promote our agriculture sector, stress on exports of agriculture produce and give them all possible incentives and facilities.

We can emerge as a global leader in the agriculture sector provided we make a long-term roadmap and strategy to process our agriculture produce and market it in the international market.

At the same time, we must admit here that the government can only make policies. It is for the officers at the ground level to implement it and look into its nitty-gritty and encourage entrepreneurs.