Food Prices, Health and Nutrition: Red-flag indicators for India’s 12th Plan
Macroscan, the website is maintained by Economic Research Foundation, professional economists seeking to provide an alternative to conservative and mainstream positions, has posted an article I have written on ‘Food Prices, Health and Nutrition: Red-flag indicators for the 12th Plan’. Here is the opening section.
The long-term impacts of food inflation on the rural and urban poor are yielding worrying indicators in the nutrition and health sectors. The debate over the provision of the National Food Security Bill and over the reform of procurement for the public distribution system has helped a great deal to bring to the foreground persistent inequities in food access and quality. What remains are the health and nutrition dimensions that are also determined by access to food, the prices at which food items are available and the extent to which food inflation determines nutritional choices for citizens in low income categories. Some of these linkages are brought out by reading together new data from the National Sample Survey Organisation’s 66th Round, and recent trends in retail food prices.
Retail prices of the separate elements of a common food basket are recorded by the Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs (FCA), Department of Consumer Affairs, for 49 cities. This is a new series of 22 items, compared to the 16 items the FCA had maintained until early 2011. For rice and wheat there is a curious pattern to the price rise. The price band for the 49 cities moves up over time, but it also expands over that time. This can be seen in Chart 1.
With Bharat Nirman-centric infrastructure programmes deepening the connectivity between food supplying districts and consuming regions and with growing investment in agri-logistics and in food retail chains, in fact the reverse ought to happen. That is, food basket staples should be displaying greater homogeneity in retail prices. However, there are a variety of other factors influencing the price band (for the FCA’s 49 cities as much as for district kirana shops) and some of these are external factors such as energy costs, new demand centres arising in fast-urbanising towns which skew distribution costs and corner investment, and the offtake by the food processing industry which is growing at an annual rate of 14%-15%.
While a number of factors are at work behind the divergences over time between states and between rural and urban consumption centres, these are not reflected by the movement of the Wholesale Price Index. However, it can convincingly show the variance between types of measurements. The Office of the Economic Adviser maintains the Wholesale Price Index (WPI). After indexing the upward movement in WPI (new series 2004-05) for rice from January 2006 and also indexing the minimum and maximum prices per kilo of the 49 cities’ price trendline, Chart 2 is the result.
As pointed out in a number of articles and commentaries on MacroScan by Jayati Ghosh and C P Chandrasekhar, there is a gap between the rate of increase of CPI for food items and the WPI for those items. This we can see in Chart 2. What we also see is that from October 2008 to January 2010 the rise in WPI accompanied, more or less, the rise in the lower limit of the rice price trendline. From January 2010 onwards, the difference in the growth rates of the WPI for rice and of the rice trendline is significant. This is the ‘fair average quality’ of rice. Yet the gap between the lower price trendline and the WPI is now greater than it has been at any time during 2007-08, when the global food price shocks took place.
How have these price trends hurt households in the lower deciles of consumption in both rural and urban areas? One of the early results of the 66th Round of the NSSO, ‘Key Indicators of Household Consumer Expenditure in India, 2009-10’, provides an answer. The state- and decile-grouped summary data tables show that for 16 major states, the rate of increase in monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) on food has been faster than the rate of increase of the total MPCE. What has been the impact in the states? For example, with both food and total MPCEs indexed to the levels found in each state by the NSSO in 2003, the food MPCE rose by 87% in 2009-10 in rural Maharashtra whereas the total MPCE rose by 65%. In 2005-06, food MPCE in rural Maharashtra had risen 14% and the total MPCE had risen 19%.