Leading From the Front
Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the Cabinet Minister for Food Processing in the Government of India and Member of Parliament from Bathinda (Punjab) is a multi-faced personality. Politics, family and philanthropy are three diverse areas, but a modern woman should excel in all three. That's what she feels, and does.
Indranil Das | March 2016 Issue | The Dollar Business
She is a member of Shiromani Akali Dal. Her husband Sukhbir Singh Badal is the Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab and the President of Shiromani Akali Dal. Her father-in-law Parkash Singh Badal is the Chief Minister of Punjab. Belonging to a family with politics in its blood, the first obvious question to her was whether politics was her first choice as well. “No, it was never a choice. I got into politics, by destiny. I used to canvass for my husband, Mr. Sukhbir Singh Badal, who was a Member of Parliament. Few months before parliamentary elections, he got into state politics, so his seat got vacated, and the ex-chief minister of Punjab put his son from my husband’s constituency, saying that he will drive the Badals out of their own constituency. So, our cadres demanded that we needed a family member to counter it, and that is how I joined politics”.
A great supporter of foreign direct investment (FDI) in food retail, she has recently written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to allow FDI in multi-brand retail for food products that are fully grown and processed in India. For, she believes that this will not only boost infrastructure and strengthen the local supply chain in the agriculture sector, but will also benefit farmers, across the country, in a big way. Besides this she is also working on mega food parks and cold chain schemes to give exports from India a big push.
Deep into social work as well, this Member of Parliament from Bhatinda (Punjab) says if she was not doing politics, she would have taken up social causes. “In my yesteryears, I was, and I am still, actively involved with Nanhi Chhaan, an initiative aimed at saving the girl child and the environment. I feel passionately about women empowerment and the status of women. I believe the progress of any country, community or society can only be measured by the progress made by the women in it, and more so by the attitude of the society towards women in the country.”
The minister feels that, of late, despite many challenges, women in the country have progressed. However, issues such as female foeticide are still a problem in the country. To create awareness on this, Nanhi Chhaan, under her leadership, has been propagating how every religion teaches respect for women and is against female foeticide.
Certainly, she is a strong-willed Indian politician who has inspired many women to put their best foot forward, take challenges head on and never give up!
TDB: In today’s business landscape in the country, we have many women business leaders who have or are making a mark in many fields – what are your thoughts on this? Has India produced enough women business leaders? Or do we still have a long way to go as compared to the world?
Harsimrat Kaur Badal (HKB): Yes, there is no doubt that, of late, women in the country have done great for themselves – not just within the country, but beyond as well. So, whether you see Indra Nooyi or late Kalpana Chawla, they all have made us proud. Inside the country, women have been guarding our borders as well, besides ruling the boardroom across many sectors. But at the same time, I feel we still have miles to go. We still live in a nation where more than 40% of our women are not educated, and more than 70% of our adolescent girls are malnourished. We still have a low sex ratio. So, there are still a host of issues that require urgent attention.
I believe the more women come into decision-making spheres, the more beneficial it will be for them. Therefore, I stand for woman reservation in Parliament, as I believe women only know best about the issues of their fraternity, which many male leaders will not even raise their voice against. So, simple things such as the availability of drinking water, lack of toilets, etc., could only come from women legislators, and these simple issues are in fact herculean tasks to a large number of women toiling across the length and breadth of the country.
TDB: Talking about food processing, and especially since you come from Punjab where a big food processing industry exists and thousands of women are involved in food processing, what are your plans for the industry?
HKB: There are three reasons why I am pleased with the ministry I have got. Firstly, it directly impacts the livelihood of farmers in a positive manner; secondly, in all the food parks that I have been to, I have found a huge number of women working there, and thirdly, this sector happens to be the sector where you don’t have the need for a formal education to enter and succeed. Having said that, I believe the food processing sector, which is still in its infancy in India – with just 10% processing levels in the country, will grow, and more employment opportunities for women will be generated.
TDB: Though there is a huge scope for growth in exports of processed food, we have not yet reached our potential. Please tell us about your endeavours in this regard.
HKB: Yes, indeed we are one of the largest food producing countries in the world in many categories, still, our processing level stands only at a nascent stage, i.e. 10%. On the other hand, many smaller countries like Thailand, Malaysia and other EU nations process up to 80-90% of their agricultural produce. So, obviously, they are far ahead of us. One of the main challenges here has been the lack of infrastructure and we are working on this. This also becomes very important as each year a huge amount of food is wasted, and consequently our farmers do not get good remunerations for their produces. So, I have been working on it, besides working on mega food parks and cold chain schemes to give our export potential a boost.
TDB: You have asked for 100% FDI in food processing. Do you see this as a game-changer for the sector, and why?
HKB: Yes, I have asked for 100% FDI in food processing for the food grown and processed within the country, and I do see it as a game-changer for the sector. I need to emphasise that this is not the same as the previous government's 100% FDI in multi-brand retailing policy. It is only for food that is or will be 100% grown and processed in the country. We know the fact that although the industry is seasonal, the overheads in it are incurred throughout the year. That’s why this sector has not been as lucrative as other sectors. We wish to use that foreign money (FDI) to create this infrastructure that has been missing from the sector. I believe this can play a catalytic role in setting up the infrastructure from farm-to-fork. It can actually turn the game around. We have reached 10% of our potential today. We have 90% to go. The state I come from – Punjab – is a testimony, where brands such as Walmart (has 20 of its 25 stores) and Pepsi have come in, and have impacted the farmers very positively so far. Also, I wish to assure everyone that with my call for 100% FDI in food retail, no kirana or mom-and-pop store will be harmed in the country. Punjab is a classic example where both coexist. In fact, this modern retail will in turn modernise the kirana shops.
HKB: Marine is doing well and so is meat processing. Besides, I feel that we need to focus on perishable fruits and vegetables, etc., where certain private players have achieved great success recently. The industry has potential to generate employment, not only for skilled but also for unskilled people. Infrastructure needs to be linked up and created so that more people can benefit. We have huge domestic demand, but the industry's full export potential also needs to be tapped. If done right we can become the world's most preferred processed food provider. The ministry is setting up 42 mega food parks, of which two are already operational, 35 have got final approval, and 3 are yet to get approvals. We have planned 138 cold-chains, out of which 73 are already complete, while 65 are in various stages of construction, and we have asked the Finance Ministry for Rs.100 crore in financial assistance for new projects on cold chains. These will go a long way in changing the way we have been dealing with our perishable fruits and vegetables, thereby aiding our exports potential in a big way.