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Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘onion

Vegetable hocus-pocus in India

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Which one of these two statements is false?

‘India has more than enough vegetables to feed its households, which need about 144 million tons per year’

‘There is a deficit of about 20 million tons in 2 out of 3 vegetable types India’s households need’

Which one you choose as false depends on whose interpretation of vegetable self-sufficiency you lean towards: the Ministry of Agriculture’s triumphant announcements of ever higher vegetable tonnage, or the data on crop quantities combined with current population and dietary needs (as I do here).

My answer is that the second of the two statements is nearly true whereas the first is entirely false. This is the explanation, and it is based on the data using which the startling graphic presented above was drawn.

In its ‘First Advance Estimates of Horticulture Crops’ for 2017-18, the Ministry of Agriculture has said that a record quantity of 180 million tons of vegetables has been cultivated.

This is no doubt a quantity record for vegetables. It apparently exceeds by a wide margin the quantity required to adequately provide all our households with vegetables for their daily meals. How many household would that be? My calculation, based on the projected increases in population and household contained in Census 2011, is about 270 million (or 27 crore) households in 2018, and with the mean size of the household being 4.8 members.

Such a typical household needs about 1.44 kilograms per day of vegetables as part of a well-balanced diet. Adjusting for the smaller portions eaten by children (up to 14 or 15 years old) and the elderly (from about 65 years old) and further adjusting for the losses and waste that take place from the time vegetables are brought to mandis till they cooked in kitchens, a total of about 144 million tons is needed to supply all our households for a year.

With 180 million tons cultivated and 144 million tons needed, we seem to have a surplus of some 36 million tons of vegetables.

Not so. This ‘surplus’ needs closer examination, which the chart guides you towards. As you see, the biggest circles belong to five vegetable categories: potato, tomato, other vegetables, onion, and brinjal.

What these biggest circles represent needs to be connected to what the National Institute of Nutrition has recommended as the required daily quantities of vegetables. And that is, not just 300 grams per day, but 50 grams of green leafy vegetables, 100 grams of roots and tubers and 150 grams of other vegetables. A household consuming the stipulated 1.44 kg/day of vegetables if those vegetables are a kilo of potatoes and 440 grams of tomatoes is not a household eating vegetables – it’s a household eating far too many potatoes and tomatoes.

The chart shows us dramatically how unbalanced the cultivation of vegetables has become in India. Nearly 40% of the total cultivated is onions and potatoes (70 mt). Add tomatoes and the three account for 51% of the total (93 mt). Add brinjal and the four account for 58% of the total (105 mt).

Our 270 million households should be buying, cooking and eating about 95 million tons of vegetables that are green and leafy, or are ‘other vegetables’. But in these two categories, we are growing no more than about 75 mt – which reveals a massive shortfall of 20 million tons.

This is the truth behind the tale of booming, record vegetable production. Those five big circles in the chart should never have been the sizes they are. Our households do not need an allocation of 500 grams of potatoes per day (no, Lays, Pringles, Doritos, Kurkure, Uncle Chipps, Bingo, Haldirams chips and wafers are not food).

What we need instead is for every taluka, tehsil, block and mandal to value and grow its local varieties of leafy greens, roots and tubers, shoots and stems, edible flowers and buds. That is what will bring back genuine vegetable nutrition and diversity.

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Written by makanaka

January 8, 2018 at 19:50

Secrets of the record vegetables harvest

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The Ministry of Agriculture’s third advance estimates for the production of horticultural crops in India during 2016-17 has record figures for vegetables and fruit, 176.17 million tons and 93.7 million tons respectively.

The horticultural division counts 22 vegetable classes and a 23rd which includes all others. Likewise 26 classes of fruit and a 27th which includes all other fruit. Unfortunately, the horticultural division does not name these ‘other’ vegetables – which I surmise will include a number of leafy greens, tubers and beans – and which are estimated by the division to have amounted for the year to 23.62 million tons (mt).

In this chart for vegetables the ‘other’ unnamed vegetables are clubbed together with those vegetables whose harvests are individually sizeable (0.2 to 0.7 mt) but under 1 mt: elephant foot yam, mushroom, capsicum and parwal.

What stands out in this record harvest of vegetables is how the total tonnage is distributed. Potato, tomato, onion and brinjal together account for 101.82 mt which is 57% of the total vegetables tonnage. This is an extraordinary concentration. Worse, potato alone is 48.24 mt which is just over 23% of the vegetables total.

This is a hopelessly skewed distribution by weight which I think describes how very far the writ of the snack food manufacturers runs, by governing crop cultivation choices made in the field. Most snacks available today are industrially produced mixtures of vegetable ingredients, with flavours, colourings and food scents chemically added.

So-called contract farming in India began with PepsiCo’s foods division directing the cultivation of potato for its chips. Onions and tomato followed – for the last five years some 2 to 2.5 mt of onions are exported, and tomato makes its way into numerous ketchups and sauces. Both are ‘popular’ snack flavours by themselves. Hence the top three vegetable classes account for nearly 90 million tons together. Compare this quantity with India’s wheat harvest for 2016-17 of 98.38 mt!

To put the total annual quantities of onions (21.72 mt) and tomatoes (19.54) in perspective, 22.95 mt of pulses were grown during 2016-17 and this being not enough to provide our households, a further 6.6 mt was imported during 2016-17 (at a cost of Rs 28,523 crore). This is what irrational crop cultivation choices results in: kisans’ plots are dedicated to the cultivation of a few vegetable staples that serve as raw material for a snack foods industry whose products are nutritionally harmful, whereas those plots could grow pulses and save the country money, besides contributing to balanced diets.

Yet the count of vegetables by the horticulture division of the Ministry of Agriculture does not enumerate even the better-known vegetables that arrive at the mandis, and whose mandi prices are listed by the same ministry.

Their market names are: Alsandikai, Amaranthus, Ashgourd, Balekai, Banana Green, Beetroot, Chapparad Avare, Cluster beans, Colacasia, Coriander, Cowpea, Drumstick, Field Pea, French Beans, Galgal, Ginger, Gram Raw/Chholia, Green Avare, Groundnut pods, Guar, Indian Beans/Seam, Kartali/Kantola, Knool Khol, Little gourd/Kundru, Long Melon/Kakri, Lotus Sticks, Mango Raw, Methi, Mint/Pudina, Ridgeguard/Tori, Round gourd, Season Leaves, Seemebadnekai, Snakegourd, Spinach, Sponge gourd, Squash/Kaddoo, Surat Beans/Papadi, Suvarna Gadde, Thondekai, Tinda, Turnip, and White Pumpkin.

These 43 classes (there are likely more based on seasons and agro-ecological regions) of commonly consumed vegetables, grown all over India, amount to about 22 mt, using the numbers from the third advance estimates for 2016-17. But it is upon the diversity of these lesser, ‘other’ classes of vegetables that the dietary balance of millions of households depends. Yes, the annual vegetables balance sheet for 2016-17 boasts an impressive bottom-line, but the numbers therein don’t add up.

Written by makanaka

September 5, 2017 at 19:25

Where are Bharat’s local leafy greens in this chart?

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RG_IN_veg_2013_14_prodHere is the list of the principal vegetables grown, according to the third advance estimates for 2013-14 (the agricultural year is July to June) for horticultural crops. The figures are from the usual source, the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture. The quantities are in million tons. Where’s the vegetable diversity? Where are the leafy greens? Are they included in that bland circle called ‘others’? The DAC won’t/can’t tell us.

This is an enlightening comment a reader of Resources Research. Neville said:

“We moved to Goa 5 years ago from California. First thing that shocked us was the (low) quality and diversity of greens and other vegetables here. Most farmers here have stopped growing due to the soaring price of land, so veggies are trucked in from Belgaum where there doesn’t seem to be any oversight or regulations. For example, we stopped buying spinach and other leafy greens as they reek of DDT 90% of the time. The average person doesn’t seem to notice / care. There is a healthcare crisis here in Goa – soaring rates of cancer and stroke and I am convinced it is due to the bad quality of food and the rampant burning of plastic waste. We now grow our own veggies or buy from small-time villagers. Sad state of affairs indeed.”

The numbers are: Beans 1.213; Bitter gourd 0.971; Bottle gourd 2.192; Brinjal 13.842; Cabbage 9.109; Capsicum 0.156; Carrot 1.19; Cauliflower 8.585; Cucumber 0.69; Muskmelon 0.702; Okra/Ladyfinger 6.461; Onion 19.769; Peas 4.165; Potato 44.306; Radish 2.561; Sitaphal/Pumpkin 0.356; Sweet Potato 1.126; Tapioca 7.778; Tomato 19.193; Watermelon 1.827; Others 21.953.

Written by makanaka

September 4, 2014 at 21:18

India’s food price inflation is no surprise

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Reports on the new evidence of price increases for staple foods in India have evoked surprise and a variety of responses from economic analysts. Reuters has reported that inflation “unexpectedly hit a seven-month high in September as food prices climbed” because the “wholesale price index (WPI), the main inflation measure, climbed to 6.46 percent last month”.

If tomato, potato and onion show the behaviour of all vegetable prices, the new food inflation peak is no surprise at all.

If tomato, potato and onion show the behaviour of all vegetable prices, the new food inflation peak is no surprise at all.

Supplied by the views from the financial markets and industry sources, and supported by a government position of prices and food supply that is predictably optimistic, reports in the mass media claim that inflation is expected to come down in coming months.

Business Standard reported that “the simultaneous rise in WPI- and CPI-based inflation in September can be explained by the lag effect of rising food prices on consumer prices. The newspaper quoted a chief economist of the State Bank of India who said: “Consumer price inflation is correcting the huge gap we had witnessed in food items at retail and wholesale levels in the previous months.” It also quoted an economist with a credit rating agency, CARE Ratings, who said the divergent trend in July and August could be explained by the fact that retailers couldn’t increase prices at the same rate as wholesalers and, therefore, had to squeeze their margins.

The Hindu reported that “headline inflation unexpectedly touched a seven-month of 6.46 in September riding on the back of a whopping 323 per cent increase in price of onion followed by all round hike in price of other fruit and vegetable items”. This newspaper said that the latest data released by the government on Monday put the food inflation at 18.40 per cent in September over the same month last year.

The three pairs of charts you see here describe the prices of tomato, potato and onion as recorded by the retail price monitoring cell of the Department of Consumer Affairs, Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs, Government of India. The cell collects retail prices of 22 food items from 57 urban centres, and these are the monthly averages from 2009 January to 2013 September.

The monitoring cell does not collect the prices of common vegetables (such as brinjal, cauliflower or pumpkin) or leafy green vegetables, hence these will serve as indicative proxies that describe the movements of vegetable prices in Indian urban retail food markets over the measured period.

The charts with the full set of price trendlines for all 57 centres are dense to look at, hence I have simplified them to three trendlines each: an average, the price of the 80th percentile of the centres, and the price of the 20th percentile of the centres. Doing so helps preserve the overall trend over the period measured and also helps more clearly display the difference between the upper and lower bounds of the variation in price amongst the set of urban centres.

The tomato chart shows periodic spikes from mid-2010 however the peak of 2013 July dwarfs all others. The potato chart shows the previous peak being during 2009 October, but in terms of the persistence of high price the period from 2012 August till the present is the longest since 2009 January. The onion chart records the previous spike during 2010 December to 2011 January, which has been topped during the current spike that began in 2013 June.

The tale of the charts is that even for items that go through cycles, like vegetables, the overall trend is upwards and this upward trend is at a rate faster than the wage increases for agricultural and rural labour, for those working in the informal urban sector, and is a rate that is only partly offset by any dearness allowance (if that old mechanism is still used).

For all those who are said to be knowledgeable on food price and the causes of inflation – the ministries of agriculture, of commerce and of food processing, the industry associations, the bankers and financiers, the food and retail industry – the current food inflation spike is no surprise at all, it was expected as the festival season has begun. The difference now is that with every such season, the new base price for our food staples is pushed to higher level, further squeezing household budgets that are not reinforced by bonuses.

The cereals, oils and sugars have been far more predictable in their rise for the last five years. Their price rise in inevitable given the growth of the retail food industry, the processed foods industry, the rise in the price of fuel, and the rise on the prices of fertiliser and pesticides. Just as the so-called ‘carrying cost’ of PDS foodgrain is derided as being inefficient by the private sector, they too bear a carrying cost – inventory of processed food and inventory of primary crop used for such food – which is concealed in the price the consumer pays.

It is only local food networks that choose organic crops, supply locally and insulate themselves from the organised food profiteers that can free themselves from the pain of India’s steadily rising food price inflation.

India’s onion panic

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The swings and spikes of the Maratha onion. The red line is the price per quintal, which is on the scale to the right. The quantities are in tons, on the scale to the left. Both price and quantity are for onions in Maharashtra, for the period 2006 to 2013 June. The data is from the National Horticulture Mission.

The monthly swings, spikes and tears of the Maratha onion. The red line is the price per quintal, which is on the scale to the right. The quantities are in tons, on the scale to the left. Both price and quantity are for onions in Maharashtra, for the period 2006 to 2013 June. The data is from the National Horticulture Mission.

We onion eaters shudder when we remember the annus horribilis of 2010, when onion prices rose to a monthly average of about Rs 2,400 a quintal (that’s 100 kilograms).

Now, our familiar red allium cepa is lightening our slim purses by 70 rupees for a kilo. Will the rest of 2013 turn out to be another onion-scarce quarter? I should hope not. The chart tells us that the price peak of 2010 accompanied a dreadful shortfall in the supply of the pungent stuff, but surely, the low supply levels of mid-2008 and late 2007 were even more severe, as my chart tells us.

More worrying is the upward flight of that red line in this last month, which is now at or around a level second only to the peak of 2010.

The popular press hasn’t noticed the curious trend (perhaps editors and reporters nowadays must consume far too much pizza, pasta, cola, burgers and so on, untutored in the ways of the jowari roti, the one-half of a juicy red onion, and a handful of ‘lasanyache chutney’, as one says in Marathi, which is the unforgettable district staple of chutney made from ground garlic, red chillies and coconut; more the losers they then.)

Business Today has reported that “industry experts are perplexed by the trend” of the rise in onion prices (what’s their expertise worth I wonder), the Business Line warned that “after racing ahead of the rupee, onion could turn costlier than petrol”, the New Indian Express found Food Minister K V Thomas doing his bit to calm the nation by saying that “there’s no cause for panic”, and the Business Standard’s reporter in Lasalgaon, in the district of Nashik in Maharashtra, which is reckoned to be Asia’s largest onion market, nearly fainted away when the price shot up to Rs 5,300 a quintal.

Written by makanaka

September 18, 2013 at 11:29

Food inflation crippled India’s households in 2010

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Vegetables, fruits and cereals market in in the city of Surat, Gujarat state, IndiaThe price of a basket of staple foods has become crippling in rural and urban India. The government’s response is to favour agri-commodity markets, greater retail investment and more technology inputs. For food grower and consumer alike, the need for genuine farm swaraj has never been greater.

The retail prices of staple foods rose steadily through 2010, far exceeding in real terms what the Government of India and the financial system call “headline inflation”, and exceeding also the rate of the rise in food inflation as calculated for the country. These calculations ignore the effective inflation and its increase as experienced by the rural and urban household, and they ignore also the considerable regional variations in India of a typical monthly food basket.

Vegetables, fruits and cereals market in in the city of Surat, Gujarat state, IndiaMoreover, from a household perspective an increase in the prices of food staples is not seen as an annual phenomenon, to be compared with some point 12 months in the past. It is intimately linked to employment (whether informal or seasonal), net income, and the pressures on the food budget from competing demands of medical treatment, education and expenses on fuel and energy.

When real net income remains unchanged for over a year or longer, the household suffers a contraction in the budget available for the food basket, and this contraction – often experienced by rural cultivator families and agricultural labour – is only very inadequately reflected by the national rate of increase in food inflation.

An indicator of the impact on households is provided by the price monitoring cell of the Department Of Consumer Affairs, Ministry Of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution. This cell records the retail and wholesale prices of essential commodities in 37 cities and towns in India. Data over a 36-month period (2008 January to 2010 December) for the prices of cereals, pulses, sugar, tea, milk and onions reveals the impact of the steady rise in the Indian household’s food basket.

In 33 cities and towns for which there are regular price entries, the price per kilo of the “fair average” quality of rice has risen by an average of 42% over the calendar period 2008 January to 2010 December. In 12 of these urban centres the increase has been over 50% (Vijayawada, Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Patna, Cuttack, Bhubaneshwar, Indore, Bhopal, Shimla, Karnal and Hisar).

The average price rise over the same period for a kilo of tur dal, for 32 cities for which there is regular price data, is 46%. In 11 of these urban centres the increase in the price of tur dal has been over 50% (Puducherry, Bengaluru, Patna, Agartala, Nagpur, Mumbai, Indore, Ahmedabad, Shimla, Jammu and New Delhi). Where wheat is concerned, from among the 27 cities and towns for which there are regular price entries over three years, in 10 the per kilo price rise is 30% and more.

Vegetables, fruits and cereals market in in the city of Surat, Gujarat state, IndiaIf in search of a comforting cup of tea over which to rue the effect of the steady price rise, this too will cost a great deal more than it did three years ago. For 25 urban centres with regular price data, the average increase over the same period of 100 grams of loose tea leaf is 38% and in 11 of these cities and towns the increase is between 40% and 100%.

The sugar with which to sweeten that cup of tea has become prohibitively expensive over the January 2008 to December 2010 period. For the 32 cities and towns for which there is regular price data, the average price increase for a kilo of sugar is 102%, the range of increase being between 76% and 125%.

This increase for sugar – relatively homogenous for the price reporting centres – exhibits the countrywide nature of the price rise of the commodity. Nor is there a household economy case for substituting sugar for gur, or jaggery. For the 17 towns and cities reporting data for gur prices over the same 36-month period, the increase in price over the period has been an average 118% with 11 of these centres recording an increase of over 100%.

Vegetables, fruits and cereals market in in the city of Surat, Gujarat state, IndiaAdding a third element of higher cost to the humble cup of tea is the price of milk. For the 25 towns and cities which recorded increases in the per litre price of milk over the 36-month period (one city recorded a drop) the average rise is 37%. In seven cities a litre of milk costs at least 50% more in December 2010 than what it did in January 2008 – Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Indore, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Patna and Hyderabad.

In conspicuous contrast are the rates of increase in price of cooking media – groundnut oil, mustard oil and vanaspati. Over the January 2008 to December 2010 period the 37 urban centres recorded average price increases of 10%, 9% and 10% respectively for groundnut oil, mustard oil and vanaspati.

Finally, the volatile allium cepa, or common red onion. In 29 cities and towns reporting regularly the per kilo prices of onion, the increase in price of the vegetable has been astonishingly steep. The average increase for 29 cities is 197.5% and in 14 the increase has been 200% and above – New Delhi, Shimla, Ahmedabad, Indore, Mumbai, Rajkot, Agartala, Aizawl, Bhubaneshwar, Cuttack, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Vijaywada. In pale comparison is the otherwise worrying average increase of 39.5% for a kilo of potatoes – this is the 36-month average increase recorded by 27 urban centres.

India’s food price inflation in high gear

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There has been no shortage since November of news reports and analyses about the food inflation. The 19% annual rise in fact masks widespread individual urban centres’ price shocks and individual food item trends. I have tried to unpack the year-on-year ‘national’ food inflation number using data from the Ministry Of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution – Department Of Consumer Affairs (Price Monitoring Cell). My guess is that this data is an under-estimate but is useful for spotting trends.

I collected prices for the 36 cities tracked by the PM Cell, monthly from 2007 December. Based on a small basket of staples (rice, wheat, atta, tur dal, sugar, gud, tea, milk, potato, onion, salt) a crude index shows that in 33 out of 36 cities, the 24 month (07 Dec to 09 Dec) rise in prices of items in this basket is more than 24%, and that in 23 cities it is more than 50%.

Food inflation 2009 over 2007 in Indian cities

Food inflation 2009 over 2007 in Indian cities

About price increases in rural settlements I can find no organised information at all, although direct experience in western Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa tells me that a staples basket can cost up to 2-3% more than in urban areas. (Agmarknet collects and maintains detailed mandi prices for farm produce but there is no comparable effort for rural retail food staples.)

The National Sample Survey 61st Round (2004 July-2005 June) on ‘Household Consumer Expenditure in India’ put down the finding that out of every rupee that the average rural Indian spent on household consumption, 55 paise was spent on food and mainly:
18 paise was spent on cereals
8 paise on milk & milk products
6 paise on vegetables
5 paise on sugar, salt & spices
5 paise on beverages, refreshments, processed food, purchased cooked meals, etc

Of the non-food expenditure 10 paise was spent on fuel for cooking and lighting.

I have tried to maintain this weightage in my calculation, but it is really no more than a crude reckoning because I haven’t been able to spend the time to clean up the publicly available data – querying the website database of Dacnet (Dept of Agriculture and Cooperation) or FCAMin returns report formats that are terribly messy, even though they contain useful data. (Although I think there may be differences even between these for the same foods and same date ranges.)

Based on what I have seen and heard on the field in Karnataka, Goa and western Maharashtra (and learnt about Gujarat and eastern UP from others) the available food basket seems to be shrinking (the so-called ‘coarse’ cereal group is conspicuously less), and where families have young and teenaged children there is pressure to buy processed and packaged snack foods (which is really a blight in our small rural markets). There are all sorts of oddities about the form that food takes in these markets – the price of a 50 gram pack of biscuits for example (Parle Glucose is the standard) has hardly moved in the last 3-4 years yet at the same point-of-purchase end, look at the way the prices of ground wheat have moved.

Then there’s fuel and transport to account for, more about which you’ll find here. This question needs much more work in 2010 to strengthen some of the reliable data we have with updates, and to try to build in what we see and hear and sense from conversations with those who live and work in all those tahsils and talukas and blocks and mandals. I feel very strongly that we are lacking in our data the presence and impact of the many linkages that connect and influence the rural farming/labour household. Many of the measures we have have served us well but I think need to be supplemented – how to integrate the lessons and findings from the comprehensive National Family Health Survey, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the many studies into the income-providing measures of NREGA.

Even though we worry about what the rural/urban poor household must spend on, the attraction to buy mobile phones amazes me. I have met young men who earn around Rs 4,000 a month but who have bought Samsung mobile phones costing Rs 5,000! Imagine spending more than a month’s income on a phone, I asked them, but they saw nothing worrying about their expenditure. Retailers who sell mobile phones used to keep the low cost and hardy Nokia phones which 3 years ago cost around Rs 1,700-1,800 (mine is still working), but not any longer, or they work at discouraging those who ask for the relatively cheaper phones. Much more than the hundred-dollar laptop we need the thousand-rupee mobile phone.

The image is of a chart I made for the project group I work with (part of the National Agricultural Innovation Project, it’s called Agropedia and you can read more about it here). This chart helps point to some patterns (you can download the hi-res image here). I’m curious for example about Gujarat, whose grain and commodity traders have a long and murky history of hoarding. The North-Eastern cities could be insulated to some extent from the regional transport subsidy (road and rail). Cities in the Deccan are relatively better off than North Indian cities. The big difference between Chandigarh and Mandi is puzzling.

In his hugely interesting paper, ‘India And The Great Divergence: Assessing The Efficiency Of Grain Markets In 18th and 19th Century India‘, Roman Studer (University of Oxford, Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History, Number 68, November 2007) has written: “Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the grain trade in India was essentially local, while more distant markets remained fragmented. This is not to say that no grain was traded over longer distances, but the extent was very limited, as the prices from some 36 cities all over India still exhibited various characteristics of isolated markets.”

“First, annual price fluctuations were extremely high. Second, differences in price levels between markets were very pronounced and persisted until well into the nineteenth century. Third, apart from neighbouring villages or cities, price series from different markets did not show comovements at all.” Studer looked at century-old data, but we still have 36 cities to tell us about staple food retail prices! Also, the three characteristics he mentions can be seen today too.

Happy New Year!