Understanding how food prices are gathered in India
It isn’t easy, not with 468 cities and urban agglomerations whose populations are more than 100,000 – how many of their markets can be reliably covered? There are 236 with populations of between 100,000 and 200,000.
From there to 300,000 there are 79, from there to 400,000 there are 35, from there to 500,000 there are 22, to 600,000 and then to 700,000 there are 13 each, then up to a million there are 17, from there to two million there are 34, from there to five million there are 11, and five million and above there are eight.
How can any agency deal with such a spread, variety in typologies of urban growth, speed of growth, differences in income strata, and hope to be somewhat uniform and at least reasonably regular in the collection of price data? No one agency can, and not even a set of them can.
Still, to understand how prices are arrived at (“discovered” is the term the commodities futures markets like to use, but such use is far from innocuous and more than hurtful for the low-income households) and how they change over time we have to make use of what is available.
In India, price data is broadly classified into two categories: prices relating to bulk transactions and prices for small transactions (what the price collection agencies call ‘bulk transactions’ include wholesale prices and farm harvest prices).
Retail (or consumer) prices are small transactions – what the rural and urban (and migrant) household pays for a local food basket, for electricity, health care, education, clothes, transport, communication, durables and various services including banking.
So there are what the price monitoring and collection agencies call “customarily collected” prices and these are for items which are included in the typical consumer basket of goods of segments of population that have been terms industrial workers, agricultural labourers and rural labourers – and this is because there are separate consumer price indices computed every month for these three categories.
Several departments and agencies of the Government of India are involved in the collection of prices and their redistribution. Perhaps the most important but also the most frustrating (to find and use) is the Price Monitoring Cell of the Department of Consumer Affairs. It is important because the PMC collects and disseminates wholesale and retail prices of selected essential food items. It is frustrating because the website that delivers the data is frequently down. That’s apart from data gaps. But we have to work with what we have.