Hungry for more

Dwindling supplies of processed and convenience foods at a time when their demand has surged in the wake of the extended national lockdown is a worrisome issue that needs attention. Though the food-processing industry has been freed from the lockdown, its functioning has been marred by the shortage of labour and packaging material, apart from the glitches in procuring raw inputs and distributing value-added products. Processed items, including instant mixes and ready-to-cook or ready-to-consume products, now account for a sizable share of the food market, especially in the urban areas that have been hit the hardest by the coronavirus outbreak. This industry employs over 7 million workers, including around 1.5 million women, in normal times. It is now reported to be operating with hardly 20-25 per cent of the workforce. Many agro-processing units are still lying closed while most others are operating at a very low capacity. Limits on the number of labourers who can work simultaneously in a given area to avoid overcrowding and the social distancing, personal hygiene, and other precautionary norms are further constraining the work at the food-processing factories. Lingering disruption in the production line of this industry may worsen the common man’s lockdown-related woes.

The paucity of special packaging material required for different kinds of processed foods, such as plastic films, corrugated boxes, and other types of material, caused by the earlier ban on the units manufacturing such items, has not abated as yet. Though these factories have been allowed to reopen, they are also handicapped due to the shortage of labour and transport and other coronavirus-related factors. The distribution of the processed products, especially the last-mile delivery to the retail outlets, too, had earlier faced formidable snags as the local-level civic administrations at many places did not consider these essential items. But the situation has thankfully changed after the government freed all kinds of cargo, regardless of being essential or not, to be transported and delivered all over the country without any hassle. However, the impact of these relaxations would not be visible till the output of the food-processing factories recovers adequately.

This apart, most farm products that constitute the raw material for this industry are seasonal in nature and have to be procured and stored in bulk for processing over an extended period. This process has been impeded this year. The peak season for procuring some of the vegetables, fruit, and other farm goods is either underway or round the corner but the food processors have not been able to corner much stock as yet. This lag may be hard to make up, though the harvesting season is still in progress. 

The need today is to treat food processing as part of the overall food sector and provide all the facilities, exemptions, and concessions available to agriculture and related activities. This industry adds value to farm products and prolong their market availability. The labourers who want to report for work in the food factories should be issued permits for inter-state movement and offered the needed assistance for travel. Hand-holding by the government at this stage is critical for this industry to get back on its feet and serve as a key link in the farm-to-fork value chain.

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