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Posts Tagged ‘vegetable

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

Regions of wheat, lands of rice

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The return of budgetary focus towards agriculture and the economies of rural India will help deepen our understanding about where crops are grown and for whom. These are still more often described in national aggregate terms of annual estimates, than by season, state and the growing appetites of urban agglomerations.

This could change over the next few years, especially as the so-called services sector shrinks both by the number of people it employs and by its importance to the national economy. Services – a peculiarly invented term that was quite unknown and unused when I was a teenager – has come about because of the financialisation of those portions of social activity which were done at small scale, informally and as adjunct activities to the work of the public sector, the manufacturers and factories, and the great numbers of cultivators (and those working on agricultural produce). The many enforced errors of contemporary economics means that this will continue to change – not without pain and confusion – but that social activity that has some economic dimension will return to what it was two generations earlier.

While it does, we find there are differences in the concentration of food staples produced – that is, how much by quantity do certain regions grow our food staples as a significant fraction of national production of that food staple. This is more readily available as state quantities instead of district. I have suggested to the Ministry of Agriculture that this ought to be monitored not only at the level of the district but also by the agro-ecological zone, or region, for we have 120 in India, and they represent varying climatic conditions, soil typologies, river basins and cultivation systems.

At present, what we see then is that for rice and wheat, the top three producing states account for 36.7% (rice) and 62% (wheat) of the country’s production. This distribution – or concentration – should cause a review of the crop choices that our kisans make in the growing districts and agro-ecological zones. For a simple pointer such as this tells us that 37 out of every 100 quintals of rice grown in India are grown in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh and that 62 out of every 100 quintals of wheat grown in India are grown in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh.

The corresponding distribution/concentration with coarse cereals is better than wheat but not better than rice for 45.4% of total coarse cereals are grown in Rajasthan, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Likewise, 48.8% of all pulses are grown in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. The tale is similar with oilseeds (63.8% in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat), with sugarcane (73% in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka) and cotton (69.8% in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh).

With horticulture – that is, vegetables and fruit – there is less state-level concentration to be seen. India’s kisans grow about 170 million tons of vegetables and about 85 million tons of fruit a year and their concentrations vary – West Bengal and Odisha grow a great deal of brinjal, Maharashtra grows onions, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal lead in potatoes, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka grow the most tomatoes, and so on. Overall however, the range of distribution amongst the large states of their produce of vegetables and fruit is not as concentrated as with the food staples. The reasons for this difference can tell us a great deal about the need for district and watershed-level food security, employing as always sound zero budget farming techniques (no external inputs) and local and indigenous knowledge of cultivation techniques.

Why India must rely on local food stocks

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The below average June to September monsoon season will lead to lower foodgrains production. What is the likely impact and how can society cope?

Context – For the last four years the numbers that describe India’s essential food security have become a common code: 105 million tons (mt) of rice, 95 mt of wheat, 41 to 43 mt of coarse cereals, 19 to 20 mt of pulses, 165 to 170 mt of vegetables and 80 to 90 mt of fruit.

With these quantities assured, our households feed themselves, army and factory canteens are supplied, the public distribution system is kept stocked and the processed and retail food industry secures its raw material.

Only provided there is such assurance, and that the allowance for plus or minus is as small as possible. Monsoon 2015 has removed that assurance for the agricultural year 2015-16. Our 36 states and union territories – and the 63 cities whose populations are more than a million – must begin to deal with the possible scenarios immediately.

Stock scenarios – In September 2015 the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, of the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, released the first of its usual four ‘advance estimates’ for the 2015-16 agricultural year. Each estimate sets the targets for the year for the foodgrain (and also commercial) crops, and provides with every estimate how likely it is that the annual target will be met.

This first advance estimate has issued a direct warning: rice production is estimated at 90.6 mt against a target of 106.1 mt. The wheat target is just under 95 mt but there is no estimate provided as yet. The target for coarse cereals is 43.2 mt whereas the advance estimate is just under 28 mt. The target for pulses is 20mt and the first estimate is 5.5mt.

What are the implications? The responsibility of the Department is to provide a provisional reading of the conditions that affect the production of our staple crops, and to inform and prepare state and central governments of the likelihood of shortfalls in foodgrain. The signal it has given for rice, estimated at 85% of the target, must be taken as a flashing red beacon which demands that our food stocks return to the foreground of the national agenda.

It is likely that the second and third advance estimates will see quantities revised upwards, but our planning must be based on this first estimate so that even the most adverse of natural contingencies can be met with suitable measures.

Using the first advance estimate as the basis, here are the likely annual production quantities, at 90% of the target and at 95% of the target: rice, between 95 and 101 mt; wheat, between 85 and 91 mt; coarse cereals, between 39 and 42 mt; pulses, between 16 and 17 mt; total foodgrains, between 236 and 250 mt of which cereals are between 220 and 232 mt.

RG_foodstocks_table_201509Household demand – Will these quantities suffice, as for the last four years total foodgrain targets and production have been in the region of 260-273 mt?

To help answer this question, two sets of deductions must be accounted for. To begin with, for each main category of foodgrain, there are production quantities, imports, stock variations and exports. When these are added or subtracted, a gross domestic supply quantity remains.

It is worth also noting that this gross quantity is still no more than a best assessment that is synthesised from the information provided by state governments. The first set of deductions is by way of feed, seed and waste (foodgrain that is used in animal feed, is harvested to use as seed for sowing, and which is damaged after harvest or rendered unusable because of pests and infection). Allowing for the lowest likely level of deductions, the combined deduction is about 7% for rice, 10.5% for wheat, 17% for coarse cereals, 15% for pulses, 5% for vegetables and 10% for fruits.

The available quantities are now revised further. Under a 95% of target scenario, we will have 93.5 mt of rice, 81 mt of wheat, 34.5 mt of coarse cereals and 14.5 mt of pulses. In the same way, a 95% of target scenario for vegetables is 153.5 mt and for fruits it is 72.5 mt. On the consumption side we have the households – in 2016 we will have 175 million rural and 83 million urban households.

These households will require a baseline minimum of 181 mt of cereals, 136 mt of vegetables, 45 mt of fruits and 41 mt of pulses. Under a 95% of production target scenario therefore, there will be enough cereals, enough vegetables and enough fruits. We have been falling short in pulses for several years.

But this apparent comfort is still without the second set of deductions. And these are: (1) buffer stocks of rice and wheat to be maintained, with 5-8 mt of rice during the year and 10-18 mt of wheat during the year (to fulfil the demands on the public distribution system and to fulfil the allocations for the food-based welfare programmes), and in addition the strategic reserve of 2 mt of rice and 3 mt of wheat to be maintained; (2) the use of foodgrains by the food processing and retail food industry; (3) exports of primary crops (such as rice and in particular basmati) and processed crops (vegetables and fruits); (4) the industrial use of foodgrain (including for biodiesel); (5) the diversion of cereals to alcohol distilleries.

Some amongst the second set of deductions are known – such as the withdrawals for buffer stocks and the food reserves, and the export quantities – but the others are either hidden, concealed or misreported. In a food production scenario that is less than 95% of targets (in the way that rice has already been estimated for 2015-16), the deductions from gross crop production will decrease available foodgrains, vegetables and fruits to levels that will compromise household food security, especially those households in the lower income brackets.

Recommendations – The climate variations that have led the Department of Agriculture to raise a red flag warning are no longer uncommon. The 2015 monsoon was affected by El Nino conditions, which are expected to continue into the first quarter of 2016. These changes in the pattern of the Indian summer monsoon are amplified by land use change in our districts, by deforestation, by rapid urbanisation, by inequitous water use, and by consumption behaviour. Some of these can be addressed through policy, education and incentives over the long term. What is needed immediately however are:

a) A review of the drivers of crop cultivation choice in our watersheds and agro-ecological zones so that, as far as possible, these settlements units begin the transition towards local food security in sustainable ways. This means that the income-led arguments which favour the cultivation of commercial crops for farming households must be critically re-examined – in a situation of primary crop scarcity an income buffer alone will not help these households.

b) The demands placed by export arrangements (including the export of meat, which represents fodder and feed) and by the food processing and retail food industry must be quantified and made public. Especially at the level of district administrations, the need to rationally incentivise land use towards the cultivation of food crop staples that suit agro-ecological conditions has become an urgent one. The decentralisation of planning that can make such an approach possible can take place only when hitherto hidden and concealed foodgrains use becomes public.

c) To reach self-reliance at the level of panchayat or block (tahsil, taluka), cooperative farming must be vigorously encouraged, villages must become self-reliant in the provisioning of their food staples (a consideration that must balance that of the ‘national market’), the bio-physical limits of the major food producing districts (the top 250 by quantity) have already been reached and this necessarily limits the demand urban India can exert upon rural districts, in terms not only of food quantities but also in terms of the population that must be fully engaged in foodgrains cultivation.

Visiting our total household food budget

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Twice as much over the 11 years until 2009-10, and three times as much over the 10 years until 2012-13. That has been the increase in rupee expenditure for this basket of foods.

The data is from the private final consumption series, calculated by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI). The totals (left scale of the chart) is in thousand crore rupees.

In this chart I have shown the expenditure (in current rupees) for: Cereals and Bread, Pulses, Sugar and Gur, Oils and Oilseeds, Fruits and Vegetables, Milk and Milk Products, and Meat Egg and Fish. These totals also indicate the size in rupees of the food industry – but do not include the processed and packaged food industry.

The rise in consumption expenditure expressed in rupees is a money measure alone, and not a quantity or volume measure. We can see that the portion of milk and milk products in this group has gone up from just over 18% to 25% over 14 years, and the portion of meat, eggs and fish has gone up from just under 9% to 12.5% over the same period.

From 2006 the rising trend of expenditure on fruits and vegetables became steeper than the rising trend of cereals and bread. In 2005-06 the portion spent on fruit and vegetables in this group was just over 26% and that has risen slightly to 28% in 2012-13. In contrast for cereals and bread, the portion of 27.5% in 2005-06 has dropped to just over 21% in 2012-13.

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 crop quotas for a rain-troubled year

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In this graphic, the size of the crop squares are relative to each other. The numbers are in million tons. Rice, wheat, pulses, coarse cereals, sugarcane. oilseeds and the fibre crops are the major categories for the 2014-15 crop production targets. What is always left out from the 'foodgrain'-based projections are vegetables and fruit, and these I have included based on the 2013-14 advance estimates for horticultural crops.

In this graphic, the size of the crop squares are relative to each other. The numbers are in million tons. Rice, wheat, pulses, coarse cereals, sugarcane. oilseeds and the fibre crops are the major categories for the 2014-15 crop production targets. What is always left out from the ‘foodgrain’-based projections are vegetables and fruit, and these I have included based on the 2013-14 advance estimates for horticultural crops.

Your allocation for the year could be 136 kilograms of vegetables, provided the monsoon holds good, which at this point in its annual career does not look likely. We need the veggies (not just potato, onion, cabbage and tomato) as much as fruit. But the central government is more traditionally concerned with ‘foodgrain’, by which is meant rice, wheat, pulses and coarse cereals.

That is what is meant by the ‘foodgrain production targets’, which have been issued by the Ministry of Agriculture for 2014-15 – as usual with scant sign of whether the Ministries of Earth Sciences and Water Resources were invited to a little chat over tea and samosas. I would have expected at least a “what do you think dear colleagues, is 94 million tons of wheat wildly optimistic given the clear blue skies that o’ertop us from Lutyens’ Delhi to Indore?” and at least some assenting murmurings from those foregathered.

But no, such niceties are not practiced by our bureaucrats. So the Ministry of Agriculture gruffly rings up the state agriculture departments, bullies them to send in the projections that make the Big Picture add up nicely, sends the tea-stained sheaf to the senior day clerk (Grade IV), and the annual hocus-pocus is readied once more. What the departments in the states say they are confident about is represented in the chart panel below, which shows you for rice, wheat, coarse cereals and pulses the produce expected from the major states. The question is: will monsoon 2014 co-operate?

Rice, wheat, coarse cereals and pulses, and the states which grow them the most, targets for 2014-15, using data from the Ministry of Agriculture

Rice, wheat, coarse cereals and pulses, and the states which grow them the most, targets for 2014-15, using data from the Ministry of Agriculture

Written by makanaka

July 12, 2014 at 18:25

India’s 259 million ton target

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Self-sufficiency or price volatility? There are choices to be made for food cultivators in India. Illustration: Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation

Self-sufficiency or price volatility? There are choices to be made for food cultivators in India. Illustration: Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation

Quietly, the Ministry of Agriculture has issued its first estimate for the crop year 2013-14. Food price inflation in every single state and union territory has been rising over the last four to five years, and with the furore over the WTO Ministerial Conference just over, and with promises to keep over the National Food Security Act, the big bottom-line should have been accompanied by a number of careful statements from ministries and departments concerned with cultivation and with the supply of food.

These would be the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, the Ministry of Agriculture itself, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, the Ministry of Commerce (whose minister represented us at the WTO meeting), the Ministry of Rural Development (under which the gigantic rural employment guarantee programme now includes work on agriculture, and safeguards against leaching labour away from the fields when it is needed in those fields), and so on. But, we have a 259 million ton bottom-line number for the country for 2013-14 and there’s no elaboration of it whatsoever from any chamber of the government.

RG_2013-14_crop_targetsHere are the key numbers in million tons (with the first advance estimates, where given, in parentheses). Rice 105 (92.32), wheat 92.5, pulses (which is tur, gram, urad, moong, other rabi and kharif pulses) 19 (18.02), coarse cereals (which is jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, small millets, barley) 42.5 (43.99). To this I have added vegetables and fruit – these are for reasons I cannot fathom (but have suspicions about) still omitted from the targets and from the estimates; this happens four times a year, and they are released with a dullness and lethargy that belie the frantic scenes in the districts whenever a fair price shop is restocked. [You can get the xlsx file with the latest data here.]

Using averages of all-India production of vegetables and fruit for the last three years available (these are 2012-13, 2011-12 and 2010-11) I can supply what could serve as ‘targets’ for horticultural production as follows: vegetables 154.1 mt, fruit 76.3 mt. But, to hint at my suspicion, this is lucrative export produce and the government agency, the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), working in concert with the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, is responsible for converting our vegetables and fruit into produce shipped off in containers, or into raw material for India’s growing ‘food service’ industry (awful term, as if we needed yet another service to add to the inequitous burden of the info-tech and financial services) and the domestic organised retail trade (yes that means Walmart, Tesco, Auchan, Carrefour, Metro and who knows who else).

Written by makanaka

December 20, 2013 at 17:08

Sauce, ketchup and Indian tomato prices

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They say the prices are cyclical, like they are for all vegetables. They say India grows enough vegetables to provide for our growing population and we have enough surplus to export. Well, if that’s so, then why does a kilo of tomatoes today cost fifty rupees? A few phone calls and visits to local grocery shops (not the supermarkets) confirmed that today, in Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi, tomatoes sold for Rs 45 to Rs 55 a kilo.

Sauce and ketchup every which way you look in sizes from 90 grams to 1 kg - that's where India's tomatoes are going.

Sauce and ketchup every which way you look in sizes from 90 grams to 1 kg – that’s where India’s tomatoes are going.

Why are our staple vegetables experiencing such price spikes so frequently (the big onion panic is not two months old)? Here’s what the official numbers look like, from the Ministry of Agriculture, Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Retail Price Monitoring System. This collects prices of food staples every week from 87 urban centres in all 35 states and union territories, and I have used this quite comprehensive data series to examine the ups and downs of the price of the tomato.

The chart above illustrates the price of a kilo of tomatoes in India’s urban centres between the first week of July 2010 and the third week of October 2013 – tomato prices have been recorded for 59 urban centres over 173 weeks. To simplify what is otherwise a maniacal tangle of individual threads (see chart below) I have taken a median price, and urban price at the 80th and 20th percentiles, which together describe the overall movement and variation well enough. The cycles are indeed visible – they are roughly 40 weeks long.

Tomato prices recorded for 59 urban centres over 173 weeks.

Tomato prices recorded for 59 urban centres over 173 weeks.

But the cycle changed from the first week of April 2013, when the prices of a kilo of tomato rose more steeply than before. And from the first week of August 2013, tomato prices have settled at a new plateau significantly higher than at any time in the last three years.

Why has this happened? The growth of the processed foods industry is the main cause – this industry sector has for the last three years grown (in value) at around 15% per year, which is greater than the GDP ‘growth’ and greater than the growth in value recorded for agriculture in general. For tomatoes, this means that every quarter, more tomatoes exit the stream of tomatoes that would otherwise go to home kitchens and instead enter factories, there to be turned into sauce, ketchup, purée and powder (which you find as flavouring even in those awful noodle ‘tastemaker’ sachets and cup noodle containers). These thousands of tons will become available as packaged and processed goods (the better to accompany the acres of super-fattening industrial pizza being baked every day) and this means less, per capita or per household, is available as primary produce that can be used in kitchens at home.

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 food took 57% of the rural Indian’s budget

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The National Sample Survey Office of India conducts country-wide household consumer expenditure surveys at regular intervals. These surveys are conducted through interviews of a representative sample of households selected randomly through a scientific design and cover almost the entire geographical area of India.

Monthly per capita expenditure in India's states for the rural population. Source: NSSO, Report No.538

The household consumer expenditure survey is generally conducted as one of the main subjects of the NSS survey at intervals of five years (called quinquennial intervals). This  provides a series of expenditure surveys. The 66th round survey (July 2009 to June 2010) was the eighth such survey of this quinquennial series, the seventh having been conducted during the 61st round (July 2004 to June 2005).

The NSS consumer expenditure survey aims at generating estimates of average household monthly per capita consumer expenditure (MPCE), its distribution over households and persons, and its break-up by commodity group, separately for the rural and urban sectors of the country, for India’s states and union territories (there are 35), and for different socio-economic groups.

The NSS Office calls these indicators “amongst the most important measures of the level of living of the respective domains of the population”. In fact, they are the most important by far, unmatched in size and scale and detail. The distribution of MPCE highlights the differences in level of living of the different segments of the population and is invaluable for the serious study of the prevalence of poverty and inequality. These numbers enable central and state planners and decision-making processes to allocate resources among sectors, regions, and socio-economic groups, and also helps assess the ‘inclusiveness’ of economic growth.

The NSSO has issued its report on the level and pattern of consumer expenditure in India, a voluminous report based on information collected during July 2009 to June 2010 from 7,428 villages and 5,263 urban blocks spread over the entire country. Two different schedules were used to collect information on consumer expenditure, the first being canvassed in 100,855 households and the second in 100,794 households. Key findings follow:

Level of consumption
* Using the MMRP (Modified Mixed Reference Period) method of measurement of MPCE (Monthly Per Capita Consumer Expenditure), average MPCE in 2009-10 was estimated as Rs 1,053.64 in rural India and Rs 1,984.46 in urban India.
* The poorest 10% of India’s rural population had an average MPCE of Rs 453. The poorest 10% of the urban population had an average MPCE of Rs 599.
* The top 10% of the rural  population, ranked by MPCE, had an average MPCE of Rs 2,517 – about 5.6 times that of the bottom 10%. The top 10% of the urban population had an average MPCE of Rs 5,863 – about 9.8 times that of the bottom 10%.
* Among the major states, Kerala (Rs 1,835) had the highest rural MPCE. It was followed by Punjab (Rs 1,649) and Haryana (Rs 1,510). In all other major states, average rural MPCE was between Rs 750 and Rs 1,250.
* Average rural MPCE was lowest in Bihar and Chhattisgarh (around Rs 780), and also low in Orissa and Jharkhand (around Rs 820), as well as in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh (around Rs 900).
* Maharashtra (Rs 2,437) and Kerala (Rs 2,413) were the two major States with the highest MPCE in the urban sector, followed  by Haryana (Rs 2,321). Urban MPCE was lowest in Bihar (Rs 1,238).
* The median level of MPCE was Rs 895 in rural India and Rs 1,502 in urban India.
* In the 22-year period from 1987-88 to 2009-10, real MPCE measured by the Uniform Reference Period method was estimated to have grown by only 19% in rural India, but by as much as 42% in urban India. The growth in real urban MPCE over the 16-year period between 1993-94 and 2009-10 was about 34%.
* Measured by the Mixed Reference Period method, real MPCE grew by about 19% in rural India during the 16-year-period from 1993-94 to 2009-10, and by as much as 37½% in urban India over the same period.

Monthly per capita expenditure in India's states for the urban population. Source: NSSO, Report No.538

Pattern of consumption
* Using the MMRP (Modified Mixed Reference Period) method of MPCE measurement, food was estimated to account for about 57% of the value of the average rural Indian’s household consumption during 2009-10. This included 14% for cereals and cereal substitutes, a little less than 8% for milk and milk products, and 8% on vegetables. Among non-food item categories, fuel for cooking and lighting accounted for about 8%, clothing and footwear for 6%, medical expenses for a little over 5%, conveyance and education for about 3.5% each, other consumer services for 4%, and consumer durables for 3.5%.
* For the average urban Indian, over 44% of the value of household consumption was accounted for by food, including 8% by cereals and 7% by milk and its products.
* The share of most of the food item groups in total consumption expenditure was higher in rural India than in urban India, fruits and processed food being exceptions. For non-food item groups, the share was usually higher in urban India. The most noticeable differences were in case of cereals (urban share: 8%, rural share: 13.8%), rent (urban: 6%, rural share: 0.5%) and education (urban: 8%, rural: 3.6%).
* In the major states, the share of food in rural MPCE varied from 46% for Kerala and 48% for Punjab to 64% in Assam and 65% in Bihar. In the  urban sector it varied from 40-41% in Kerala and Maharashtra to 52% in Jharkhand and 53% in Bihar and Assam.
* The share of cereals in total expenditure in rural India varied across the major states from 7% in Punjab and Haryana to 21% in Assam and Bihar. In urban India, the share varied from 6% for Haryana, Punjab and Kerala to 13% in Assam and 15% in Bihar.
* The budget share of cereals was 23-24% for the bottom decile class of rural India but fell with rise in MPCE to about 7-8% for the top decile class. In urban India the share of cereals fell from 18-19% for the bottom decile class to 3-4% for the top decile class.
* The budget share of milk and milk products in rural household consumer expenditure was seen to rise with MPCE level from 3-4% in the bottom decile class to 9% in the ninth decile class. For urban India, however, the share was higher for the middle third of the population than for the highest decile classes.
* The share of fuel and light in household consumer expenditure was around 10-11% for the bottom decile class in both sectors. With rise in MPCE it was seen to fall to about 6% in the top decile class for rural India and 5% for urban India.

Quantity of cereal consumption
* Average cereal consumption per person per month was 11.3 kg in rural India and 9.4 kg in urban India.
* In rural India, average monthly per capita cereal consumption was around 10.2 kg for the poorest 10% of the population. With rise in MPCE it was seen to increase, quickly at first, to reach 11 kg in the third decile class, and then more slowly. It was above 12 kg for the top two decile classes. In urban India, per capita cereal consumption was seen to increase from under 9.5 kg to about 9.7 kg per month over the first five decile classes but then to fall, finally plunging to 8.6 kg for the top decile class of population.
* Over the 16-year period from 1993-94 to 2009-10, estimated monthly per capita cereal consumption (which does not include cereal content of purchased processed food) fell from 13.4 kg to 11.35 kg in rural India and from 10.6 kg to 9.39 kg in urban India. The fall was spread over all major states.