Policies threaten local agri-processing

The unthinking promotion of industrial scale processing and palm oil threaten traditional farming and the village eco-system


Bharat Dogra

Although government policies in recent years have enhanced threats to national heritage, there is unfortunately no consensus on opposing the cavalier decisions, being taken without adequate studies or consultation. Sadly, various affiliates of the Sangh Parivar, which never get tired of speaking on the need to protect national heritage, have not come forward in any significant way to protect this heritage.

Not much attention has been given to the need to protect bullocks, for example, which have been such an integral part of India’s agriculture, rural transportation and energy for several centuries. They were abruptly sidelined in some parts of the country with the advent of tractors. But bullocks continue to serve in large parts of rural India and are prized by farming households. They are deemed to be sacred in many parts of India and considerable attention is given to maintain them in good health. They are mentioned with reverence in mythology and ancient texts; and Prem Chand’s classic story ‘Do Bailon Ki Katha’ and its film-version Hira Moti (known also for its great folk music), one might say, immortalized the familiar bullock.

Increasingly neglected by governments and policy wonks, bullocks face another existential threat with the Government actively promoting ‘sexed semen technology’ aimed at ensuring that male calves are not born and only females are born.

This is a strange stand for a government to take, especially one which speaks so strongly for cow protection. One of the ministers boasted, as reported in the media, that cow production factories will be created using this technology. Nothing can be more ridiculous as no species can be procreated, promoted and protected on the basis of one sex only. The spread of sexed semen technology has been increasingly encouraged during the last six or seven years and there has been hardly any opposition to it; although with the advent of Covid-19, opposing the policy is more urgent than ever because we now know that messing thoughtlessly and arbitrarily in unnatural ways with animal life is one of the factors behind the origin and spread of new and unknown diseases.

Similarly, a recent decision by the union government is to develop the edible oil sector by promoting the non-traditional source of palm oil. As palm oil is much cheaper to produce, although it is of lower value in terms of nutrition and medicinal use compared to traditional oilseeds, support from the Government will soon make it dominate the market. This will be at the cost of the invaluable and rich heritage of traditional oilseeds like groundnuts, sesame, mustard and coconut.

As government funds are diverted to promoting cultivation of palm trees and expanding the area under it, progressively there will be less land available for growing traditional oilseeds. Although the government has not stated anywhere that it is discouraging these traditional oilseeds (it does not have to), but there is little doubt that Palm Oil will push out other oilseeds from the Indian market.

The traditional oilseeds have already been priced out by cheaper oils including hydrogenated ones. Did prices of edible oil go up in the last year and a half accidentally? Was it purely the function of demand and supply and market dynamics? The jury is still out. As traditional oilseeds decline, the traditional knowledge base associated with the production and cottage/ small scale processing of traditional oilseeds will also come under increasing threat.

Traditional oilseeds also have several medicinal uses, which are well-known to Indian households, and are often used to treat the sick and the ailing. The leafy green vegetable provided by mustard (sarson ka saag) and the refreshing sweet water and raw slices provided by the coconut are widely relished, as also the many delicious as well as nutritious sweets and snacks prepared by using sesame (rewari and gazak), groundnuts and coconuts as ingredients. Winter evenings in North India are often best celebrated with roasted or just heated mungphalis (groundnuts).

All this may not come to an end but will certainly become more rare and more expensive. In addition, in areas where palm trees and oil extraction plants rapidly spread, the heritage of traditional farming systems will be adversely affected.

India has had a rich heritage of small-scale food processing, such as for extracting edible oil, making ghee, jaggery or on-the-spot milling of wheat to prepare our daily bread at home. These have additional advantages. If oil is extracted from oilseeds within the village or close-by, then local availability of oilcakes for dairy activities also increases. Better quality of food is ensured and more employment is generated. Traditional skills associated more with specific communities are also better utilised.

Several forms of local, village-level and cottage-scale food processing have already suffered in recent times as an unthinking government has gone about promoting industrial scale processing technologies. The promotion of palm oil also involves a big shift towards large-scale, industrial processing, a shift started earlier by giving more emphasis to soyabean oil over traditional oilseeds.

The latest government bid is to push for mandatory fortification of staple foods. Draft regulations were announced some time back for edible oils and milk, and for later day introduction of fortification of rice as well. As several critiques and research papers have already argued, this is not justified on the basis of health and nutritional grounds. At the same time, however this will lead to a much bigger shift of food processing towards large processing industries controlled by big business interests.

These are just a few of the more obvious examples of increasing threats to heritage. Criticism has been ignored and public discussions and debates, not to speak of public consultations, have been discouraged. The Sangh Parivar, which swears by Swadeshi and professes concern about threats to our heritage, has gone along with the Government without offering any opposition.

It is time for people to wake up to the implications and significance of such threats and oppose them.

(The writer is a journalist and author. Views are personal)

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