Nikita Sharma, New Delhi
Can the humble potato really help you make a fortune? So much so that you be crowned as ‘The Potato King’? Sounds a bit unreal, right? You anyway couldn’t be more wrong. Punjab based Jang Bahadur Singh Sangha is here to prove you wrong at this. Sangha and his family are the leading producers of potato and maize in India with an annual produce of almost 45000 tonnes of seed potato and 7500 tonnes of maize spread over an agricultural land of 5000 acres over Punjab. When agriculturists of Punjab switched to more lucrative produces of wheat and paddy, the Sangha family resolved to producingpotato only, advancing in technology year after another.
Rajesh Sharma from the Indus Age team in an exclusive interview with the ‘Potato King’ discussed about his journey till now.
Rajesh: Known as the ‘Potato King’, you oversee one of India’s largest and most modern farming operations. Tell us about the inception of all this?
Jang: The credit goes to my father for its inception, he started it in early 60’s and he worked hard building it from the scratch. I simply joined after my Masters degree from the Cornell University in the United States. It kind of equipped me and broadened my mission. So, I came back to India because it was very natural. I believe if after being skilled you don’t come back and pay tribute to your own, showcase to others, then, there is no use. Let your people follow good models of agriculture. That’s what my focus has been. Hence, I joined the operation and have contributed to it in my own way using my technical capacities and a modernised vision for agriculture.
Rajesh: You have demonstrated the transformative impact of technology in a country of small-scale subsistence farms. How difficult was it to take the business to such heights? What were the challenges that you faced?
Jang: The biggest hurdle was marketing and finance;
Finance can help you to grow your operation but marketing remains the key to any business; especially for us where the buyer is not the government, making it even more insecure. We produce potatoes, maize and rice, so we have to sell smartly. The risks involved are huge in here because the commodities and price fluctuate so much in India, which means one year we make money and in another we incur losses. This takes place because of the weaker policies and the responsible people’s poor understanding of agriculture .The government has always been shying away from it’s responsibilities towards agriculture, mostly being inactive and that has led us, the producers, to take the initiative ourselvesto expand globally, to bring modern technologies to India on our own.
Rajesh: The government has 1.2 billion people to feed and is still not self reliant in food. Do you think India will ever be in that position or will face a decline in the next 10 years?
Jang: The policies in India are very short sighted. Just a smallsurplus in food production makes the government nervous. Poor policy decisions have lead to poor storage technology. Unfortunately, our procurement system itself is corrupt and thus, is very wasteful. Why such huge amount of food is wasted every year, there’s no accountability to this major issue. Efficient storage facilities should have started decades ago but to this date, we cannot store on a large scale. That’s the government’s lack of vision and interest in agriculture. The political representatives work on their convenience and look at it as a liability and not as a responsibility or asset. Agriculture should have been our strength and not a weak front. First we have to have sufficient food production because two or three droughts in a row and the country will be dying. This is what short sightedness does to you.
Rajesh: You are a classic example of modernising the Indian agriculture. Taking an initiative without asking the government to help; you decided to work on your own,went ahead for further education and came back to serve the nation. Why can’t Indian farmers be motivated to do something you have done in farming?
Jang: I went to Cornell, I feel lucky to be a part of that course and to be accepted there. But how can you expect the same from a farmer’s son who has been to a rural school, who cannot even converse properly and who has not been taught about technology? How do we change that? The Prime Minister is talking about skilling, it’s not only skilling, primary education comes first, proper middle and secondary schooling next, and then, comes the importance of skill gaps. Yes, we are trying to address the skills, talking about skill gaps and gearing up by connecting with the international agencies. Firstly, we should strengthen our own system and then work with international agencies. Both should go hand in hand but the international agencies should be involved to improve the primary schooling first and then skills.
Rajesh: You began with potatoes and expanded it to maize, but no other crop like paddy or wheat. Is there any specific reason behind it?
Jang: We started with potatoes and the name is established since then. So, it was natural to continue with it. Also, potato and wheat season is the same; you either have to produce potato or wheat. Compared to wheat farmers, Potato farmers can end up with three crops in a year depending upon the weather. So, you have an extra opportunity. In agriculture, we lease land and farm, so, the risk is compounded. It’s not a simple risk. For any farmer normally, first is the production risk and then, the marketing risk. So we take both the risksand pay the farmer, in turn securing the farmer by paying him for his land just so that he doesn’t bar the risk. The risk is huge especially in a country like India, where there is literally no agriculture insurance even though the government has a separate department working on it. It is supposed to be efficient but it’s the most unsuccessful example of agriculture insurance department in the world. Whereas, developed countries like Australia have good agriculture insurance plans.
Rajesh: What according to you are the major reasons that have contributed in the decline of the productivity of agriculture in the country?
Jang: The return on investment in food processing may or may not be worthwhile. It all depends on which segment youdeal with. A company like McCain, which supplies fries to McDonalds, sometimes has to pull back because the targets overshoot. It totally disturbs the price mechanism of the crop. Same is the case with Pepsico: Lays. This disturbs the whole sorts of price mechanisms in the internal market as well as internationally and the farmer is left hanging. This happens when the business is concentrated in a few hands, things get manipulative and the farmer takes the beating.
Rajesh: What amendments according to you should be done to better the productivity of agriculture in India?
Jang: I have an argument to this. In technology and variety, both, we must be in the capacity to develop and adopt, developing our own, and open to adapting and outsourcing. When we can do the same for defence, skilling, etc then, we should be open to science as well. There has to be more collaboration with foreign institutes and universities. Not only agricultural but our whole system is lethargic, dynamism is lacking. So dynamics has to be ingested. The Prime Minister is a dynamic starter; he has that enthusiasm to work. So his team should also follow him and compliment him rather than being dependent on him. It’s not only the Prime Minister’s responsibility to dictate the change but it is everybody’s responsibility to be that change. The ministers should be educated, they should be put through regular crash courses to update them on the portfolios they are handling so that they have the ability to understand the subjects and can bring the change everyone is looking for. It’s impossible for a single person to look after all the aspects and sectors, so rather than being the commander in chief, the Prime Minister should empower the various departments and agencies.
I would like to mention about Pakistan. They have got some amazing modern dairy operations. They are very streamlined and have high production models. If the cell count of microorganisms in their milk is very low. For baby feed and for general human consumption if the milk has low amount of bacteria, it is fit for consumption.
Primarily, I believe India should focus on food security and then comes food quality. We have to ensure that we have good milk producing models running in the country. I want people of India to adopt good dairy technology. To dictate change, it is our responsibility to be the change. India deserves better. We can’t keep our eyes shut.
Rajesh: We are curious to know what brings you to Australia? Is there any specific reason that you are visitingthe dairies here?
Jang: India’s average milk production is weak despite having the largest cattle menace in the world. There is no way of getting good quality genetics, animals and services. It’s a shame that instead of addressing and providing remedies, we boast about being the best. We never admit our issues and inefficiencies. So we need to self assess ourselves, admit the reality and have a long-term strategy about it. India deserves high quality milk and that’s what we want to do; get involved in high quality and quantity production of milk. Australians are the pioneers at this front. That’s why I am here, to analyse their strategies and techniques. They have been very supportive and are helping me, comprehend their working model. It is not about making money. After we have streamlined the right technology, we will be in the industry.