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Posts Tagged ‘tea

The Teacup Revolution

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Bom Bahia, Bombay, Mumbai, at its confounding best

This is a light little article, written for the Khaleej Times, on India and its people.

In the early years of Asian globalisation, the cry amongst the investors and business punters was “You can’t do business in Asia without India in your plans”. (They were already putting up factories in China.) Being, as punters usually are, somewhat dim but enthusiastic, these blokes – cunning bankers, makers of third-rate motor cars, purveyors of skin whitening creams, assemblers of consumer trinkets – decided that India was The Next Big Thing and ran thither.

It has been about a decade since all that began. In these 10 years, India has become richer – at least that’s what its government tells Indians, the poor and rich alike – and India is a superpower, at least according to cricketers and Bollywood film producers. It’s also a superpower for manufacturers of disposable nappies, but I don’t want to be impolite.

Going to school in Gujarat

At some point, quite a few Indians who lived in the USA (and other, stranger, parts) decided that it might be a good idea to go home and see what all the fuss was about. Some of them packed up their Dodge minivans and Hoovers, gave the dog away, stopped at duty free on the way in, and looked around for Opportunity. Silicon Valley meanwhile returned to farming turnips and beetroots or whatever it is that happened there before the IT boys took over. Once at home, in the towns and cities of Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh and the online territory of Bangalore, they looked around. And saw dusty roads, grimy health clinics, piles of garbage, lazy policemen, burst water pipes, and lots of poor people. Not much had changed had it?

But it had. And so had their neighbours and their fathers-in-law and so had India’s chambers of commerce and its per capita income. Sure, there was heat and dust and stray dogs, but there was opportunity too. Looking around, they found that some of the world’s biggest and fastest growing IT companies were right where they had last seen a couple of coconut groves. Looking still closer, they found that state government officials had stopped sitting around drinking tea and pretending to push files and actually got some work done. This was remarkable. Rather as remarkable as imagining India could win a cricket world cup. But that too has happened.

The country where three wheels is often better than four

There were flies and mosquitoes, insane political riots and infuriating power cuts. But they found that their cousins and friends and the tea stall owner down the road weren’t used to putting up with it all any more. No, the Indians at home had organised themselves (noisily, chaotically and with great garglings of sweet tea) and Got Things Done. Others put up hospitals, set up education foundations and inspired migrants in slums to start little recycling businesses. Lots of people talked about micro-credit and mobile phone apps, even if they didn’t know what these were all about anyway.

It all started coming together, despite the serial cheats, the bejeweled scamsters, the mustachioed mobsters and the unauctioned cricketers. They built highways, agitated against nuclear power plants, threw old sandals at politicians and invented the Chinese-Jain pizza. Somehow, it held together. A few of the original punters stayed on, having become employees now in Indian-owned and managed companies. People read books written by Indian authors about utterly loony Indian plots a Rushdie would die for. Others turned them into films, or mobile apps, as if there’s a difference.

Sometimes, they thought about the Raj and the chicken tikka revolution. But not often. There was far too much to do.

– Rahul Goswami (is otherwise an agricultural and rural economics researcher – makanaka [at]


Written by makanaka

April 21, 2011 at 20:52

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!