From running a small paan shop to becoming a minister in the Narendra Modi-II government, Rameshwar Teli’s life has taken several twists and turns in the past four decades.

The minister of state for food processing had as a teenager sold vegetables to eke out a living for his family. He joined college but could not complete his higher education due to financial stress. In 1999, Teli joined the BJP and became MLA from Dibrugarh assembly constituency in 2001.

Before joining the BJP, Teli was a leader of All Assam Tea Tribe Students’ Association (AATTSA). In 2014 he was elected MP from Dibrugarh parliamentary constituency defeating Congress MP Pawan Singh Ghatowar. He defeated the same candidate again in the recent elections by nearly four lakh votes ~ the highest margin of victory in the North-east in 2019.

Rameshwar Teli (48) had 92 per cent attendance in the 16th Lok Sabha and participated in 72 debates. Apparently impressed with his humble background and dedication to work, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inducted him in the government.

In an interveiw to VIJAY THAKUR, Teli spoke on his roadmap to boost the food processing industry, particularly in the North-east.

Excerpts:

Q: The world over the food processing industry is growing very fast but the pace of growth is not uniform. How do you intend to promote the food processing industry?

A: Food processing is one industry which is being promoted to its fullest in India. It has great scope in India but is still highly under-utilised. Look at developed countries, processed food products are part of their life right from drinking tea to eating food.

There one cannot imagine life without processed food in one form or the other. The Modi government has realised its importance and given maximum support to boost it. At present, we are giving 50 per cent subsidy in the plains to anyone setting up a food processing industry and for hilly terrain, the subsidy amount is 75 per cent.

There can be no better incentive than this to entrepreneurs who are keen to venture into the food processing sector. We hope with our continuous efforts and help from state governments we would be able to bring about a revolutionary change in this sector in the coming years.

Q: You are giving so much subsidy to the industry. Yet the sector is largely ignored and remains underutilised. Why do you think industrialists are not coming forward to set up units?

A: As I said food processing sector is little known to people in states. In some states food processing sector hardly exists. I come from Assam where there is no separate food processing ministry or department.

In some cases, state government officials are still confused, whether food processing should come under agriculture or industry. Surprisingly, a few big states are still confused whether to term it an industry or place it under agriculture.

We need to clear the existing ambiguity and educate state government officials on the emerging business opportunities in this sector. Big states should learn a lesson from a small state like Meghalaya, where there is a dedicated department for food processing. Secondly industrialists or young entrepreneurs should be contacted directly to encourage them to venture into this sector.

Q: North-eastern India is one area where food processing has huge scope, but unfortunately it is hardly explored by people outside. What is the government doing to attract people to the North-east?

A: In North-east area we have exotic Himalayan fruits, medicinal plants and other crops which are in demand the world over. But unfortunately, we are unable to supply it to other parts of the country despite the high demand.

Ever since the BJP came to power in Assam, we started supplying our exotic Himalayan fruits to various countries directly, including Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore.

Assam government is supporting it fully and arranging to supply it in cargo mode. Let me tell you an interesting fact, we supply our fruits and other crops to Vietnam. They grade it, process it and then export it to other parts of India. Imagine if they can do it in Vietnam why can’t we.

They are selling our exotic products under their brand name. Another example I give you is of ginger. In Assam, ginger sometimes is as cheap as Rs 2 a kg. There have been instances when farmers sold it for fifty paise a kg or asked traders to take it for free.

If we set up a ginger processing plant in Assam, not only would industrialists earn a lot, the farmers, too, would get a better price. The list of our exotic crops is long and unique. Our ministry has prepared a roadmap to boost food processing sector in Himalayan states and people will soon see the results.

Q: Why else are industrialists not coming to the North-east areas though the government is giving them more than 75 per cent subsidy?

A: One of the reasons why industrialists are not venturing into Northeast is people’s mindset. In their mind the image of the region is that of insurgency.

Secondly, they think the infrastructure is very poor there. But they do not know infrastructure has developed a lot in the area. Road connectivity, air connectivity and rail connectivity have improved and will improve further in the near future.

Their mindset needs to be changed. We will approach industrialists outside the NE region, apprise them of the peaceful investment-friendly atmosphere in the region.

Q: Is approaching industrialists from outside the only solution to boost the food processing industry?

A: No, that is only one way. We would encourage young enterpreneurs from the North-east region to come forward. We will also attract educated unemployed youth and give them proper training in this field.

The ministry is planning a pilot project in four states, where young entrepreneurs would be invited to set up small scale industries, where capital investment is less and employment generation is more.

State governments and experts from the field would provide them maximum help in getting rid of the teething problems. Experts would also help them in generating market for their product.

If Vietnam can airlift raw fruits from here and market it in the international market, why can’t we? The aim of the ministry is to increase farmers’ income through value addition and generate employment for local unemployed youth.