Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ramifications of the Great Indian Noodle Game for 'Acche Dins' Ahead!

A couple of days ago, early in the morning I got a call from my son from Bengaluru. He was anxious to discuss about the sudden disappearance of Maggi noodles from the Bengaluru markets and making him and thousands others like him starve for their daily calorie needs.

" Dad, we have been eating Maggi from our childhood days. We never had any problems. Then what is this thamasha (Indian word for irresponsible acts) this government fellows are doing now?" 

He seemed a bit agitated and that was quite a natural response because, youngsters like him who are working in India's metros for making India shine have been dependent on this quick-to-cook-and-eat noodle packs produced and marketted by one of the world's largest and reputed food product companies from their childhood days. Parents like us have been taking advantage of the modern food technologies as brought in by innovative, technology oriented multinational companies like Nestle.

In fact consumers like us have been happy and believing. Believing the company and its decades old reputation. We also believed the wisdom of the governmental authorities who apparently did the detailed investigations before giving the licences for such companies to produce and market their food products in India just as they did it in their own countries and elsewhere. I remember reading the company's noodle packs and their ready to cook soup packs containing the details of the contents and the declarations and cautions about these tasty foods containing MSG (mono sodium glutamate) as a taste enhancer. [Note that this substance is found in many naturally occuring food items such as tomatoes, cheese, mushrooms, etc and has been in use world wide for more than a century now!]

But that was not any botheration for us. Because we considered the foods made by the company's fully automated plants much more safer than all other kinds of ready to eat food as available in the Indian markets. We also knew the limitations and competency of the government's food testing laboratories and their inspectors and it was quite logical to believe the company more than the latter!

As ordinary citizens of a democratic country, having its legacy from several kingdoms and the later British rule era, we had been always under the notion that governments are for the good of the people. It is very difficult for ordinary citizens to assume that the government could do any thing detrimental to the people. If at all such things, that were only possible during any foreign rule like what we had during the British times. Our own governments that get formed by our own people can never do any thing wrong! That have been our wishful thoughts all these past decades. 

It has been very difficult for us to believe in the unholy nexus between our own people directly linked with business and the governments and about the possibility of their unholy mutual enmities which could develop as cold wars affecting our own lives!

Businesses are essentially a service to the citizens at large and no population or country can exist without some people doing business activities. Under this concept, businesses involve providing essential human service. Businesses provide the opportunity for all to meet their essential needs to survive and no one can imagine a situation where in businesses do not exist. Human civilization will vanish when businesses cease to function. They are the essential human invention by which we do and regulate all our activities. When there is no business, perhaps there is no nation or no government. We go back to our primitive days of tribal existence in the jungles. 

Industry and business are needed for us to progress and it is essential that we keep on inventing new avenues for doing more and more business activities as our populations keep growing.

While businesses give benefits to the consuming public, the business owners get a chance to make money. Ideally, they should make reasonable money as a reward for the services they do. From the money they make they should also share a part with the government as taxes for meeting the expenses of the governments. But when things go unreasonable, the society at large suffers either directly or indirectly. 

When businesses are managed  by unscrupulous or incompetent  people, detrimental problems to people arise. So, in the interest of the people at large, the people are required to develop rules and regulations for doing business. Governments are for that purpose.

But governments are also formed of people and when unscrupulous and incompetent people manage governments, detrimental problems to people arise. 

Thus it is the unscrupulous and incompetent people in the business and in the government that create problems for the people in general.

Unscrupulous people in the governmental systems might do acts arising out of vested interests, lack of knowledge or pure incompetency. 

Let us take the Maggi noodle case as an example. The company developed a process by which this food product with a long shelf life is produced. The government gave the permission to the company to produce it in their factories and do the marketing in accordance with the laws. Maggi became a house hold name and gradually became the major profit earning product of the company in India in a time span of about thirty years. The company contributed to the government in taxes and also provided direct and indirect employment to thousands of Indians. For all these years, the governments food inspecting authorities and licensing authoritied did not find any fault with this company or its product. In my knowledge, no government authority of India gave any public caution notice about this product so far during the last three decades.

When a product is existing for such a long period with full public and governmental patronage, it is normally assumed as a reputed product. But then what has happened all of a sudden in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh that the food inspectors of that region find this household food product tested as unacceptable for human consumption? Why did many states like the NCR react immediately by almost making a kind of ban on this product?

Going by the past experiences the following could be the possible reasons:

1. Possibility of mischief: There could be some vested interests somewhere who wants to tarnish the image of Nestle so that they could possibliy gain. Business rivals doing such mischiefs are not uncommon in modern history! They can do it in many ways by manipulating the samples or by manipulating the tests done in the food testing labs. Personnel that man these systems  are not fully unpliable!

2. Possibility of error in sampling and testing due to incompetency of the food control staff. The governmental laboratories usually do not have very good test facilities or very good analysts if one goes by the usual standard with regard to governmental facilities in India.

3. Manufacturing process errors. This is very unlikely as the company has been doing this for years under strict quality control systems. Being a multinational technology innovator, the company is likely to have a better testing and quality control facility than the governmental labs.

4. Impractical chemical quality norms as fixed by law:  The problems highlighted in Maggi's case now is with regard to the allowable limits of lead content and MSG content in the noodles. India does not have authentic research facilities of its own to arrive at conclusions of this kind. When even the technologists and scientists are not sure about the impact of a micro constituent in any food or drink, how could it be made for sure as a legal norm? It is normally as a result of lobbyists  or the law drafting technocrats copy pasting some foreign study materials to be evolved as some impractical laws of the land which cannot be so easily reversed. The difficulty with this kind of technical laws are that they are never understood by the legislatures nor the enforcing agencies who are all essentially non-technical as far as their competencies are concerned. Once an impractical law gets enacted, it provides much under-the-table opportunities for many enforcing authorities to be too whimsical in their acts!

5. An effort to arm-twist the business entity for various reasons: It is a common practice in many countries to use law to arm-twist peoples, groups or companies. Some people having power of governance do this for various reasons. This happens when they work essentially for self satisfaction rather than the common good of the nation.

6. Absence of governmental authority: Govermental determination and decision making go here and there when the govermental leadership is practically weak and visionless. In such a scenario, errors due to incompetence and ignorance keep happening at various levels of governance resulting in unpredictable governmental actions and responses. In the Indian context, it is normally the genaralist bureaucrats making the final directions towards decision making. When highly technical issues are involved, these directions become mutually contradictory and often funny.

It could be any one or all or several of such reasons that creates this kind of situations in governance which for the learned citizens appear as directionless and contradictory to the generally perceived vision of the top leadership of the country. For the ordinary common folks, it makes no difference as they are always confused and divided as ever!

In this case of Maggi noodles, such administrative goof ups might be creating tensions for the Nestle India officers, distributors, stock holders, suppliers ,  employees and perhaps consumers like us who have to think now for alternatives for meeting their easy food solutions. 

And incidentally the air that we breath has more lead than in the Maggi!

But what are the ramifications of incidences like this for the whole of India?

India keeps on proving that it is not a business friendly country. Not that any one should be allowed to do any kind of business by violating all rules. But, there should be transparency and governmental ethics that reciprocate with business ethics.

I have heard Indian small and medium scale company promoters talking about the umpteen numbers of fines and penalties that the authorities now force on companies for silly matters. The Indian bureaucracy does not offer solutions to the problems faced by the industries while they seem happy to enhance problems. Perhaps, it could be due to their unhappiness over their equally non-responsive political hierarchy above!

Will 'acche din' (good daysever come for business and industry to do make in India honestly a success? It is easy to dream about beating China and going ahead in full steam. How many in India really understand the fundamental systemic efforts made by the successive Chinese governments that enabled China to go far ahead of India in the last 20-30 years? 

India keeps failing to learn from others. Rather it refuses to do so. This reluctance in the whole system is too visible now than in the past. That is my experience. The reason are many. Most importantly, there are few who understand the root causes to make any intelligent effort to correct areas that went wrong.

Systemic errors can even make great nations humbled. Erstwhile USSR was one typical example. Perhaps, the USA too is moving in certain wrong paths here and there which could make that country too humbled in the near future unless they become wise to correct it. Fortunately, these nations have competent people who realizes mistakes and helps them to correct their wrong course.

But in India, apparently things are not appearing as so easy. Lack of competency and character in key positions is one major factor that is unfavorable for India as of now. 

Though difficult, it is not something impossible. But to make that happen, there should be honest efforts to recognize our weaknesses and rectify the cumulative errors that keep braking our progress ahead!    

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