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Posts Tagged ‘Economic Advisory Council

The very odd macro-economics of food prices and food inflation in India

with 3 comments

Food inflation has hurt, but we have just the prescription for it. So says the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. This group of the country’s seniormost macroeconomic planners is considered to be as heavyweight as they come, and have considerable influence on policy in India. The major ministries listen to the pronouncements of the EAC very attentively – finance, commerce and industry, power, steel, agriculture, infrastructure. India’s industry associations and business interest groups do the same – they are the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci).

But amongst the five members of the EAC (all ‘Drs’, naturally) there are no women. There is no trade union member, there is neither nurse nor teacher, there is no housewife and there is no bus driver, there is no municipal sweeper and no roadside food vendor, there is no-one from a ‘scheduled caste’ or a ‘scheduled tribe’, in fact there is no tribal at all, there is neither artist nor essayist, there is no-one to speak for the old folk of India and none to explain the dreams of India’s youth. Still they call it a council to which the country’s prime minister listens. What he and his ministerial colleagues learn from these five cosseted greybeards in their ivory tower I can hardly imagine.

The price of a kilo of rice, from 2006 to 2011, in 49 urban centres in India.

Let us see why it is so difficult to find utility (the word classical economists make much of) in the pronouncements of this cabal.

They said: “Very high rates of inflation have characterized the last two years. Much of the inflationary pressure came from primary foods, including cereals in the initial months.”

True.

They said: “While, open market intervention and large releases under the public distribution system (PDS) helped to stabilize the price of cereals, pressure continued to come from rising prices from other primary food items – especially pulses, milk, eggs, meat & fish.”

What does “open market intervention” mean? If it means the central government buying foodgrain to funnel into the public distribution system, this is a method riddled with corruption and crippled by speculation. There are no “large releases” different from the normal schedule of releases which in a country like India are large anyway. Cereal prices have not stabilised – not in 2011 and 2010 and not at any time in the last five years.

They said: “Greatly improved output of kharif pulses in 2010 combined with marketing of imported pulses at controlled prices, helped to curtail the inflation in pulses by July 2010. However, prices continued to rise for fruit, milk, eggs and meat & fish.”

Inflation in the prices of pulses has by no means been curtailed, controlled or even understood. Many kinds of pulses in India are consumed in many different ways, and there is demand not only from final household consumers but also from the dispersed and very varied small foods and snacks manufacturers for whom pulses are a necessary ingredient. Fruit, milk, eggs, meat and fish – all scarce items in the food basket of the poor but high-margin items for the food retail stores in urban India. The EAC has made no mention of why prices for these foods rose – homework not done.

They said: “The prices of vegetables took an unexpected turn in December 2010 and January 2011, resulting in an increase in the wholesale price index of vegetables by 34 and 67 per cent respectively in these two months. In consequence, primary food price inflation stayed in the double digits.”

Not only in December 2010 and January 2011. Several staple vegetables have been the actors in price volatility operas in all the 49 urban centres for which  India’s Food and Consumer Affairs Ministry monitors retail prices. To blame, in my view, is the steady ingress of the food logistics sector (itself part of the corporatisation of food and agriculture in India) into urban centres beyond the major metropolises. The “cold chain” and “value chain” evangelists work for the retail food and processed foods industry, and can exercise degrees of arbitrage which are wholly ignored by the EAC. Inside the market, there was no hint of the “unexpected”.

The price of a kilo of wheat, from 2006 to 2011, in 49 urban centres in India.

They said: “Such a lengthy period of sustained high food price inflation had its expected impact on money wage rates and other cash expenses, which in turn began to get passed into the price behaviour of manufactured goods. Year-on-year inflation for manufactured goods rose from around 5 per cent to 8 per cent in September and October 2011.”

Shouldn’t fossil fuel products and the prices we pay for them share the blame? I think a cursory study of the prices for OPEC and non-OPEC crude products will explain a lot. And besides, “wages” are wages to people who – being mostly in the informal sector and unorganised labour – cannot bargain collectively nor are represented in policy-making bodies (like the EAC), so their money wage rates have not risen in tandem with inflation. Quite the contrary, for rural labour (agricultural and non-farm both) the average household spends 65% of its income on food.

[You can get the EAC Review of the Indian Economy 2011-12 document (pdf) here] [You can get a plain text file of the paragraphs on food and agriculture, prices and inflation (txt) here]

They said: “The net effect was that the headline rate of inflation stayed close to 10 per cent for an extended period of twenty two months.”

True, even for whatever is meant by “headline rate”.

They said: “It should not be forgotten that throughout this period there has also been a suppression of the headline rate insofar as the prices of several refined petroleum products, especially diesel, continued to be restrained by policy – which has had an adverse impact on the subsidy bill and therefore on government finances and also on the finances of the public sector oil companies.”

Oh we are so distressed by the hurt caused to government finances, especially coming on top of the enormous tax write-offs (called “forgone tax revenue” in India’s quaint public accounts jargon) given to the esteemed members of CII, Assocham and Ficci, many of whom are direct beneficiaries of the measures that led to a high “headline rate” of inflation in the first place. Money for jam, I would call it.

They said: “The effort of public policy, especially monetary policy, seems to have had its desired effect. The headline rate dropped to 9.1 per cent in November and further to 7.5 per cent in December and has dropped further in January 2012.”

Now I know that the spreadsheet program supplied to the EAC for such calculations is provided by Messers Alice in Wonderland GmBH.

They said: “The welcome developments in the easing of inflationary pressures will enable the RBI to adjust its monetary stance over the next several months. However, the continued pressure from the fiscal side will continue to impose some limitations. Hopefully the extent of the fiscal burden may ease in 2012-13 and create conditions that are more conducive to investment and economic growth.”

Ah yes, in case we were momentarily misled, this is to remind us that the purpose of high-level panels of greybeards is to prove circuitously to the proletariat that conditions conducive to investment and economic growth matter (so very much) more than our shrinking wages and the spiralling prices we pay for our daily bowl of rice and scraps of vegetables. We stand educated.

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India’s mantra of ‘inclusion’

with one comment

Vendor of alamancs (kaal-nirnay and panchangs), Maharashtra

Vendor of alamancs (kaal-nirnay and panchangs), Maharashtra

The Holi and Id-e-Milad breaks coming right after the presentation of Union Budget 2010-11 have been welcome, for they allow an unhurried look at what the Government of India is saying versus what it indicates it will do. This Budget’s two key documents – the Budget proposals for 2010-11 and the Economic Survey 2009-10 – contain a term which was entirely absent from government-speak only three years ago. That term is “inclusive”. The central and state governments are now using the words “inclusive” and “inclusion” to talk about almost everything: inclusive growth, financial inclusion and inclusive development. It has gained, in India of today, the same sort of currency that “sustainable development” did worldwide about a decade ago. What on earth does it mean for the sarkar?

“For the UPA Government, inclusive development is an act of faith. In the last five years, our Government has created entitlements backed by legal guarantees for an individual’s right to information and her right to work. This has been followed-up with the enactment of the right to education in 2009-10. As the next step, we are now ready with the draft Food Security Bill which will be placed in the public domain very soon. To fulfil these commitments the spending on social sector has been gradually increased to Rs 137,674 crore which now stands at 37% of the total plan outlay in 2010-11. Another 25% of the plan allocations are devoted to the development of rural infrastructure. With growth and the opportunities that it generates, we hope to further strengthen the process of inclusive development.”

Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee

Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, caricatured by 'Mint', the financial daily newspaper

So said Pranab Mukherjee, Minister of Finance, in his Budget speech on 26 February 2010.

“A nation interested in inclusive growth views the same growth differently depending on whether the gains of the growth are heaped primarily on a small segment or shared widely by the population. The latter is cause for celebration but not the former. In other words, growth must not be treated as an end in itself but as an instrument for spreading prosperity to all. India’s own past experience and the experience of other nations suggests that growth is necessary for eradicating poverty but it is not a sufficient condition. In other words, policies for promoting growth need to be complemented with policies to ensure that more and more people join in the growth process and, further, that there are mechanisms in place to redistribute some of the gains to those who are unable to partake in the market process and, hence, get left behind.”

This is from Chapter 2 of the Economic Survey 2009-10, titled ‘Micro-foundations of Inclusive Growth’. Notice that the word “growth” has become a corollary to “inclusive”/”inclusion”. This is a serious problem, but not one that seems to concern the sarkar. Growth (most broadly, of GDP, which is a deviant, outmoded concept) and inclusion are utterly different ideas. The problems of “growth” can easily be illustrated by this paragraph:

“Price movements during fiscal 2009/10, as reflected in both the WPI [wholesale price index] and the CPI [consumer price index], have been characterised by very high rates of inflation in primary food articles and manufactured food products. The WPI rate of inflation for primary food articles crossed 20% in November 2009 and even at the end of January 2010 was close to 18%. Other than food products, the prices of other primary and manufactured goods have generally not increased by much.

A woman perched on the side bar of an autorickshaw, Surat district, Gujarat

A woman perched on the side bar of an autorickshaw, Surat district, Gujarat

Within the primary food articles basket, the goods that have exhibited the highest rate of inflation are foodgrains – pulses, wheat and rice, in decreasing order of magnitude. Within the manufactured food products segment, sugar products (sugar, khandsari and gur) have increased the most with annual inflation of over 51%. Another factor, which considerably blunted the impact of foodgrain releases by the government, was the overload on the PDS. There is a clear imperative to develop a distribution channel by the State governments, to supplement the PDS, so as to enable faster distribution of the additional releases made by the central government.”

From ‘Concluding Coments’, ‘Management of Prices’ in Review of the Economy 2009/10, by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. That is what “growth” does to prices, and prices that move the way food prices have in India for the last three years utterly wreck “inclusion”. I find it worrying that the Economic Advisory Council is talking about a parallel distribution channel to supplement the PDS, when (1) any number of independent studies have pointed out that the PDS has been handicapped in fact by exclusionary policy and (2) when state governments are quite likely to use public-private partnership methods to set up alternative distribution channels, which heap more misery on the rural and urban poor.

"Pade likhe bane minister, Chale naukri paane ko, Dhakke khaakar bane driver, Mila truck chalaane ko"

"Pade likhe bane minister, Chale naukri paane ko, Dhakke khaakar bane driver, Mila truck chalaane ko"

How contradictory the government’s “inclusive” claims are versus its intentions as contained in its other Budget measures can be seen in the Budget highlights, in which the Ministry of Finance summarises the major provisions.

“Rs 200 crore provided for sustaining the gains already made in the green revolution areas through conservation farming, which involves concurrent attention to soil health, water conservation and preservation of biodiversity.”

The contradictions in this point are ludicrous in the extreme. The Green Revolution methods ignore entirely conservation farming, soil health, water conservation and preservation of biodiversity. These four points are achieved by orgnic and biodynamic methods, for which state support is either neglible or not there at all. The Budget highlights add:

“Reduction in wastage of produce:
* Government to address the issue of opening up of retail trade. It will help in bringing down the considerable difference between farm gate, wholesale and retail prices.
* Deficit in the storage capacity met through an ongoing scheme for private sector participation – FCI to hire godowns from private parties for a guaranteed period of 7 years.
Credit support to farmers – Banks have been consistently meeting the targets set for agriculture credit flow in the past few years. For the year 2010-11, the target has been set at Rs 375,000 crore.”

Retail trade has so far done exactly the opposite of what is claimed here, while more storage capacity will directly benefit the flourishing agricultural commodity futures traders and brokers. Increased credit support is visible only in bank statements whereas small and marginal farmers (who together account for 81.9% of operational agricultural land holdings) are left out. Several estimates made in the last three years (a World Bank study amongst them) show that 87% of marginal and 70% of small farmers are not getting credit through institutions. In fact, 51% of all farmers, big and small, get no banking services, let alone credit. If 2009-10 was the year in which “inclusion” became popular with Bharat sarkar, 2010-11 needs to be the year in which its “inclusive” claims are either backed up by credible action or thrown out.