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Posts Tagged ‘PDS

India, WTO and public food stocks

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Minister of State (Independent Charge) in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Nirmala Sitharaman, clarified on 6 May 2015 to the Rajya Sabha on India’s stand at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on food security.

Here are the main points contained in Sitharaman’s reply to the Rajya Sabha:

1) A decision was adopted by the WTO General Council in November 2014 which makes it clear that a mechanism will remain in place in perpetuity until a permanent solution regarding this issue has been agreed and adopted.

2) The decision also means WTO members (countries) will not challenge the public stock-holding programmes of developing country members for food security purposes, in relation to obligations under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture.

3) The safeguard available for continuing the Minimum Support Price policy is thus strengthened and will ensure that India’s food security operations are not constrained due to WTO rules.

4) The WTO General Council Decision includes a firm commitment to engage in negotiations for a permanent solution.

Together with other developing countries, India has proposed an amendment to the rules of the WTO relating to public stock-holding for food security purposes. Sitharaman told the Rajya Sabha that “concerned at the lack of progress in implementing the Ministerial Decision on public stock-holding for food security purposes, India decided not to join the consensus in the WTO on next step for the implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement till its concerns were addressed”.

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Why USAID should quit India and look after America

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The 'Feeding America' county-level food insecurity map. the social situation confronting the great mass of the population, young and old, is characterised by economic insecurity, depressed wages and unprecedented levels of debt.

The ‘Feeding America’ county-level food insecurity map. the social situation confronting the great mass of the population, young and old, is characterised by economic insecurity, depressed wages and unprecedented levels of debt.

There is no practical, moral, democratic and defensible reason any longer for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to continue to have anything to do in India (or anywhere else) relating to food or hunger or poverty.

This is because the growth of food insecurity in the USA has paralleled the rise in the numbers of those who are poor, by any measure whether in terms of income, lack of access to a balanced diet, lack of access to essential social sector services. According to studies that have been released from late 2013 onwards, the number of households in the USA that live on less than US$2 per day more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million. Moreover, there are now nearly 3 million children who live in households that earn less than $2 per day.

It is absurd and deeply cynical for the government of Barack Obama, the White House, the US State Department, and a host of top-ranking thinktanks to continue to claim that Indo-American ties require USAID and USDA to continue propagating agricultural models and advocating technology-centric solutions in India to solve our problems of poverty and hunger. India must halt all activity with these two agencies and advise them bluntly to turn inwards – for by their own charters that is where they are needed.

The latest evidence comes from Feeding America, which is the national network of food banks in the USA. It has just released its annual report on local food insecurity which shows that one in six Americans – including one in five children – did not have enough to eat at some point in 2012. The report found that there are dozens of counties where more than a third of children do not get enough to eat. The incidence of hunger has grown dramatically. The percentage of households that are “food insecure” rose from 11.1% in 2007 to 16% in 2012.

According to separate data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), food insecurity is more widespread in the USA than in any other major developed country, with the rate of food insecurity in the US nearly twice that of the European Union average, which is by itself worrying for what purport to be the so-called ‘advanced’ economies (whereas India is ’emerging’).

US_hunger_detail_20140421That we have a situation wherein USAID and USDA (“from the American people”, is the sanctimonious tagline attached to USAID interference, when the American people do not know what injustice is being done to other people in their name, and when they are being robbed of food so that American foreign policy goals are fulfilled) continue to set aid agendas in South Asia while a fifth of American children are hungry is an international social disaster fostered by the current economic system and its political defenders.

In the USA both Democratic and Republican administrations (there is no real difference) have become adept at starving anti-poverty programmes, but have taken that expertise to new levels under Obama. The US Congress and the White House have overseen two successive food stamp cuts in just six months: first in November 2013, when benefits were slashed US$36 per month for a family of four, and again in January 2014, when benefits were cut by an average of US$90 per month for nearly a million households.

Even when the US Census had signalled the new levels of impoverishment reached by the average household, some US$4.1 billion was cut from the food stamps, or SNAP, programme citing “waste, fraud and abuse”. It is significant to note here that exactly the same kind of language has been used in India to call for the curtailing and eventual dismantling of our Public Distribution System (PDS). In cutting about US$90 a month in benefits for 500,000 households – more than a week’s worth of assistance for a typical American family in need – they now encroached on the US$1.50 per person per meal equation (around Rs 90, which may buy two meagre vegetarian thalis in an Indian city).

The government of the USA has done this at a time when, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), it spent in 2013 US$640 billion which amounted to 36% of the entire world’s total military expenditure. Still unsatisfied by such heinous perversion, the American White House and Congress discontinued unemployment benefits for some three million people (and their two million dependent children), but continued to stall the prosecution of the financial criminals responsible for the 2008 crash.

The concentration of wealth at one social pole is coupled with disastrous social conditions at the other. A generation of young people in the USA has been thrust into poverty and joblessness – almost 16% of young people aged 25 to 34 have incomes below the national poverty line. In comparison, 10% of people in the same age group were in poverty in 2000. The median income of young households is $8,000 less than it was in 2000, in real terms.

The hunger that Bharat inherited from two lean decades

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What did the ‘liberalisation’ of the Indian economy bring? What has 20 years of the ‘India growth story’, which is sold around the world, brought its labour and workers? How have households rural and urban fared at balancing their budgets and meeting their needs? Poorly, for it has been a struggle that continues.

RG_nutrition_3An analysis in the journal of the National Sample Survey Office, Sarvekshana, has compiled estimates of average calorie intake for the country and the major states from six quinquennial (every five years) surveys of consumer expenditure. These surveys show a decline in average calorie intake between 1972-73 and 2009-10. The overall decline is substantially greater for rural than for urban India, and appears to have been sharper in the period since 1993-94 (as measured by the 50th round of NSSO surveys), especially in the urban sector.

The analysis on ‘Trends in Nutritional Intake in India’ has shown that the proportion of households with calorie intake below the level of 2700 kcal per consumer unit per day (this is a measure different from per capita) has grown steadily since 1993-94: from under 52% in rural India to nearly 62%, and from 57% in urban India to about 63%.

This is no surprise to the large proportion of our population who have borne the merciless brunt of food inflation for close to a generation. Between 2004 and 2013, food prices in general rose by 157%. Cereals, the staple diet of the poorest, were high on the scale, with rice at 137% and wheat at 117%. Pulses – the sole source of protein for most – had risen by 123%. Potato was even higher at 185%. As for vegetables, they have long priced themselves out of the diet of the poor, by rising up to 350%. This crippling rise continued while the government (UPA-I and UPA-II) loudly claimed every few months it would bring prices down.

RG_nutrition_1That is why the share of cereals in total calorie intake has declined since 1993-94 by nearly 7 percentage points for rural India and by about 3.5 percentage points for urban India: the share of oils and fats has on the other hand risen by 3 percentage points for both. The share of milk and milk products has grown by about 1.4 percentage points in urban India but by only 0.6 percentage points in rural India.

Moreover, at the all-India level protein intake has fallen from 60.2 grams to 55 grams per person per day in rural India and from 57.2 grams to 53.5 grams in urban India over the period 1993-94 to 2009-10. The decline has taken place in most major states but has been sharpest in rural areas of Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab – where intake has fallen by 9-12 grams.

As the major trade unions have been raising an alarm about at least every quarter, the price of rice for BPL (below poverty line) card holders increased from Rs 350 per quintal in 1997-98 to Rs 415 per quintal in 2007-08. In the same period the APL (above poverty line) price was increased from Rs 550 per quintal to Rs 755. For wheat, the price for BPL card holders was increased from Rs 250 per quintal to Rs 415 and for APL card holders from Rs 450 to Rs 610 in a period of 10 years.

RG_nutrition_2In such a situation, fats ought not to be a contributor to calories more than it was 30 years ago. But the analysis tells us otherwise – for India has become the favoured importer of palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia. Every major state shows an increase in its population’s fat intake. At the all-India level the increase has been from 31.4 grams per person per day in 1993-94 for the rural population to 38.3 grams in 2009-10 – a rise of 7 grams per day over the 16-year period, and from 42 grams to 47.9 grams per day for the urban population, a rise of 6 grams per day over the same period. Between 1993-94 and 2009-10, the contribution of cereals to protein intake has fallen by about 4.5 percentage points in rural India and by 3 percentage points in urban India, while the contribution of pulses has fallen slightly in both rural and urban India.

This analysis from the NSSO must be viewed against the growing trend in India of the corporatisation of agriculture and the industrialisation of the food system. New market monopolies whose reach is far greater than could be conceived in 1993-94 are now at work, aided by speculative financial predators. There is in response a need for strengthening social ownership of the cultivation of food staples, of the organic agriculture movement, of shortening the distances that food travels, of localisation of the Bharatiya food web.

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.

How 27 million more rural households are buying PDS rice in India

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Rural and urban, the reliance on PDS cereals has risen dramatically in just five years.

Rural and urban, the reliance on PDS cereals has risen dramatically in just five years.

The public distribution system (PDS) is the only means by which a large and rapidly growing number of households in India’s districts and towns is able to mitigate somewhat the rising cost of a basic food basket in an attempt to reach a calorific and nutritional minimum. The share of PDS in the consumption of rice and of wheat (and ‘atta’) has risen steeply between the last such survey, in 2004-05, and the 2009-10 survey, whose results have been released.

I combined the data from the latest report based on the 66th round of the National Sample Survey Office – (NSSO, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India) which is its quinquennial survey of household consumer expenditure – with the results of the two censuses (2001 and 2011). The result? The number of rural households reporting consumption of PDS rice was 63.3 million in 2009-10 compared with 35.9 million five years earlier.

Likewise, the number of rural households reporting consumption of PDS wheat (or ‘atta’) was 44.6 million in 2009-10 compared with 16.1 million five years earlier, the number of urban households reporting consumption of PDS rice was 15.1 million compared with 8 million, and the number of urban households reporting consumption of PDS wheat (or ‘atta’) was 12.9 million compared with 3.5 million.

The hidden hunger that shames India

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Infochange India’s special hunger and malnutrition issue of its journal Agenda, 2012 July

Agenda, which is the journal of the excellent development news website Infochange India, has issued its new number, themed on hunger and malnutrition. The articles in this collection are a mix of reportage from amongst the poorest rural regions of India, insightful explorations into the nature of nutrition and the change in food systems, and critical views on food and agriculture policy in India.

“Forty-eight per cent of all children under 5 in India are stunted for their age – the impact of longstanding hunger which, in turn, is a result of sheer poverty, marginalisation and a government that clearly does not care,” explained the introductory essay by the issue editor. “Twenty per cent of children are wasted – they are stick-thin because a drought or other crisis has forced the family to further cut back on food. And an outrageous 43% of all children under 5 are underweight – a composite index of chronic or acute deprivation.”

Children in India are especially severely affected. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme is supposed to address this extreme deprivation by providing supplementary food, rations and growth monitoring through community-level anganwadis for children under the age of six years. However, though a whopping 70% of children in India between six months and five years are anaemic, 74% of children under 6 do not receive any supplementary food from the anganwadi in their region. Convert those numbers into more than 100 million children who don’t get enough to eat.

I am privileged to have contributed three articles to this issue of Agenda. They are:

What individuals spend on a monthly food basket – Though the amounts spent on cereals are largely the same, there are clear differences between the spending of rural and urban consumers on milk and milk products, sugar and oil. Urban consumers spend 104% more than rural consumers on beverages, refreshments and processed foods.

Approaches to malnutrition and the writ of a compartmented government – The absence of inter-sectoral programmes covering the entire life-cycle of women and children in particular and requiring coordination between different ministries such as women and child development, health and family welfare, agriculture, food processing and human resource development, is the reason why, at the start of the Twelfth Five-Year Plan period (2012-17), the fundamental causes of malnutrition in India remain as they were during the First Five-Year Plan.

Micro, bio and packaged — how India’s nutrition mix is being reshaped – Crop and food multinationals, ably assisted by government, are using the ‘reduce hidden hunger’ platform to push hunger-busting technologies that best suit them — including biofortification of crops, the use of supplementation, and of commercial fortification of prepared and processed foods.

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

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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.

Food Prices, Health and Nutrition: Red-flag indicators for India’s 12th Plan

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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.

India rice price trends

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%.

India rice and wholesale price index

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%.

[Macroscan, the alternative economics website, has the full article.] [pdf only is here.]

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 mantra of ‘inclusion’

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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.