Food Security Dominates Politics In India

The Hindu Business Line reports about controlling food price inflation in India.

(emphasis mine) [my comment]

Controlling food price inflation


Food price inflation is one of the most critical economic problems in the country today, and the ability to control prices of food articles quickly and effectively is one of the main bases on which people will judge the performance of this Government. C. P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh examine the recent pattern of inflation in important food items and consider the possible causes, including the growing distribution margins.


As usual when the Union Budget is presented, all eyes will be on the Finance Minister and his speech will be thoroughly scanned for all the implications on the economy. But this time, there is one particular reason why ordinary citizens will be specially focussed on the Budget: the hope that the Government is finally going to act decisively to contain food price inflation.

It is not surprising that questions of food security and the right to food have become such urgent political and social issues in India today. Rapid aggregate income growth over the past two decades has not addressed the basic issue of ensuring the food security of the population.

Instead, nutrition indicators have stagnated and per capita calorie consumption has actually declined, suggesting that the problem of hunger may have got worse rather than better. So, despite apparent material progress in the last decade, India is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of hunger among the population, and the number of hungry people in India is reported by the UN to have increased between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s.

These very depressing indicators were calculated even before the recent rise in food prices in India, which is likely to have made matters much worse. Indeed, the rise in food prices in the past two years has been higher than any period since the mid-1970s, when such inflation sparked widespread social unrest and political instability.

What is especially remarkable is that food prices have been rising even when the general price index (for wholesale prices) has been almost flat
[food prices will go up more than anything else]; thus, when the overall inflation rate was only 1-2 per cent in the past year, food prices increased by nearly 20 per cent.

Sharp rise in prices

Table 1 indicates the price increase in cities averaged across the major regions, for rice, atta and sugar, which are among the most essential food items in any household. It is evident that the price increase has been so rapid as to be alarming especially over the past two years, with rice prices increasing by nearly half in Northern cities and more than half in Southern cities.

Atta prices have on average increased by around one-fifth from their level of two years ago. The most shocking increase has been in sugar prices, which have more than doubled across the country. Other food items, ranging from pulses and dal to milk and vegetables, have also shown dramatic increase especially in the past year.

There are many reasons why food prices have risen at such a rapid rate, and all of them point to major failures of state policy.
Domestic food production has been adversely affected by neoliberal economic policies that have opened up trade and exposed farmers to volatile international prices even as internal support systems have been dismantled and input prices have been rising continuously.

Inadequate agricultural research, poor extension services, overuse of groundwater, and incentives for unsuitable cropping patterns have caused degeneration of soil quality and reduced the productivity of land and other inputs.

AFP reports that Indian parliament in uproar over food prices.

Indian parliament in uproar over food prices
(AFP) — February 23, 2010 5:57 PM

NEW DELHI — India's national parliament adjourned in uproar on Tuesday after opposition parties attacked the government over galloping food prices, one of the hottest domestic political issues.

The first official working day of the three-month-long budget session ended in chaos despite appeals to the opposition by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not to disrupt business.

Lawmakers from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party) took to their feet, shouting slogans and waving papers as they demanded a debate on food prices, which leapt 17.97 percent over 12 months in the first week of February.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Green Revolution in India Wilts as Subsidies Backfire.

FEBRUARY 23, 2010
Green Revolution in India Wilts as Subsidies Backfire

Akshay Mahajan for the Wall Street Journal
Pritam Singh, who farms 30 acres in Punjab, says the more desperate farmers become, the more urea they use. Overuse is stunting yields.

SOHIAN, India—
India's Green Revolution is withering.

In the 1970s, India dramatically increased food production, finally allowing this giant country to feed itself. But
government efforts to continue that miracle by encouraging farmers to use fertilizers have backfired, forcing the country to expand its reliance on imported food.

Popularized during the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, fertilizers helped boost crop yields and transformed In dia into a nation that could feed itself. But now their overuse is degrading the farmland. WSJ's Geeta Anand reports.

Journal Community

India has been providing farmers with heavily subsidized fertilizer for more than three decades. The overuse of one type—urea—is so degrading the soil that yields on some crops are falling and import levels are rising. So are food prices, which jumped 19% last year. The country now produces less rice per hectare than its far poorer neighbors: Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Agriculture's decline is emerging as one of the hottest political issues in the world's biggest democracy.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet announced that India would adopt a new subsidy program in April, hoping to replenish the soil by giving farmers incentives to use a better mix of nutrients. But in a major compromise, the government left in place the old subsidy on urea—meaning farmers will still have a big incentive to use too much of it.

The setback of the Green Revolution matters enormously to India's future. The country of 1.2 billion has positioned itself as a driver of global growth and as a significant commercial power in coming decades.

India likely will struggle to get there, and to return to the heady days of 9% economic growth, unless it figures out how to reinvigorate its agricultural sector, on which the majority of its citizens still rely for a living.

India's Food Crisis

Bhupinder Singh's wheat yield on this 10-acre plot used to increase every year. But for the last five years it's been barely holding steady.

Agriculture has lagged behind other industries such as manufacturing and services
, posting less than 2% growth in the latest reports on gross domestic product. And double-digit food inflation and declining yields spell less money in the pockets of rural Indians.

India spends almost twice as much on food imports today as it did in 2002, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Wheat imports hit 1.7 million tons in 2008, up from about 1,300 tons in 2002.
Food prices rose 19% last year.

To be sure, there are bright spots. Indian officials say the country may produce a record wheat harvest this year because of good weather conditions, unless rain or hail appear
[estimates are flawed]. The wheat harvest last year was better than expected, making some hopeful that the importing trend will be reversed. [See *****India's Wheat Harvest Is A Complete Disaster*****]

Behind the worsening picture is the government's agricultural policy.
In an effort to boost food production, win farmer votes and encourage the domestic fertilizer industry, the government has increased its subsidy of urea over the years, and now pays about half of the domestic industry's cost of production.

Mr. Singh's government, recognizing the policy failure, announced a year ago that it intended to drop the existing subsidy system in favor of a new plan.
But allowing urea's price to increase significantly would almost certainly trigger protests in rural India, which contains 70% of the electorate, political observers say.

The ministers of fertilizers and agriculture each declined requests for interviews.

"This is politically very difficult," says U.S. Awasti, managing director of the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Ltd. and an informal adviser to government officials on the issue. The cooperative of 50 million farmers is the largest fertilizer producer in the country.

Farmers spread the rice-size urea granules by hand or from tractors. They pay so little for it that in some areas they use many times the amount recommended by scientists, throwing off the chemistry of the soil, according to multiple studies by Indian agricultural experts.

Like humans, plants need balanced diets to thrive. Too much urea oversaturates plants with nitrogen without replenishing other nutrients that are vitally important, including phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, magnesium and calcium.

The government has subsidized other fertilizers besides urea. In budget crunches, subsidies on those fertilizers have been reduced or cut, but urea's subsidy has survived.
That's because urea manufacturers form a powerful lobby, and farmers are most heavily reliant on this fertilizer, making it a political hot potato to raise the price.

As the soil's fertility has declined, farmers under pressure to increase output have spread even more urea on their land.

Kamaljit Singh is a 55-year-old farmer in the town of Marauli Kalan in the state of Punjab, the breadbasket of India. He says farmers feel stuck.
"The soil health is deteriorating, but we don't know how to make it better," he says. "As the fertility of the soil is declining, more fertilizer is required."

Increased demand and the soaring price of hydrocarbons, the main ingredient of many fertilizers, have taken India's annual subsidy bill to more than $20 billion last year, from about $640 million in 1976.

"The only way for agricultural yields to rise again is for the government to give farmers the incentives and the products to provide balanced nutrition to their crops,"
says Bimal Goculdas, chief executive officer of Dharamsi Morarji Chemical Co., one of the oldest fertilizer firms in India.

Agriculture experts say the country can't afford to wait. "There are big problems for the future o f food production in India if these problems are not addressed now," says Reyes Tirado, an agricultural scientist and researcher for Greenpeace Research Laboratories, an arm of advocacy group Greenpeace International.

Under the new plan, the government will offer subsidies to fertilizer companies on the nutrients, such as sulphur, phosphorus and potassium, from which their products are made, rather than the fertilizer products themselves. The idea is to provide incentives for farmers to apply a better mix of nutrients.

Ultimately, the government plans to pay the subsidy directly to farmers, who will be able to buy products of their choice, including but not limited to urea.

Mr. Singh's government, however, said it would continue to subsidize urea, although it would set the price 10% higher.

Mr. Awasti, the fertilizer cooperative head, says the continuing urea subsidy means that farmers likely will still use too much of it. "The government is opting, as with any very difficult change, to adopt it in phases," he says. He says he believes that the urea subsidy will be dropped altogether in a year.

In the early years after India gained independence in 1947, the country couldn't even dream of feeding its population. Importing food wasn't possible because India lacked the cash to pay. India relied on food donated by the U.S. government.

In 1967, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imported 18,000 tons of hybrid wheat seeds from Mexico. The effect was miraculous. The wheat harvest that year was so bountiful that grain overflowed storage facilities.

Those seeds required chemical fertilizers to maximize yield. The challenge was to make fertilizers affordable to farmers who lacked the cash to pay for even the basics—food, clothing and shelter.

Back then, giving cash or vouchers to millions of farmers living all over India seemed like an impossible task fraught with the potential for corruption. So the government paid subsidies to fertilizer companies, who agreed to sell for less than the cost of production, at prices set by the government.

The subsidies were designed to make up the difference between the production price and sale price—and to give the producers a 12% after-tax return on any equity investment.

Fertilizer manufacturing companies sprang up around the country. Nagarjuna Fertilizers & Chemicals Ltd. became one of the most profitable publicly listed companies in India.

In 1991, with the cost of the subsidy weighing heavily on India's finances, Manmohan Singh, then finance minister and now prime minister, pushed to eliminate it. Most fertilizer companies lobbied fiercely to retain the program. Many legislators also resisted ending the subsidy, fearing a backlash from farmers.

"The business interests lobbied and the business interests prevailed," says Ashok Gulati, the director in Asia of the International Food Policy Research Institute, a Washington-based think tank, who was involved in the policy discussions at the time. A last-minute compromise eliminated the subsidy on all fertilizers except for urea.

"That's when the imbalanced use of fertilizers began," says Pratap Narayan, ex-director general of the industry group, the Fertilizer Association of India.

With urea selling for a fraction of the price of other fertilizers, farmers began using substantially more of the nitrogen-rich material than more expensive potassium and phosphorus products.

In the state of Haryana, farmers used 32 times more nitrogen than potassium in the fiscal year ended March 2009, much more than the recommended 4-to-1 ratio, according to the Indian Journal of Fertilizers, a trade publication. In Punjab state, they used 24 times more nitrogen than potassium, the figures show.

"This type of ratio is a disaster," Mr. Gulati says. "It is keeping India from reaching the production levels that the hybrid seeds have the power to yield."

Producers of phosphorus-based fertilizers struggled.
The government reintroduced a small subsidy on phosphorus fertilizers, but at times it didn't cover the difference between the government-set price and the actual cost of production. Dharamsi Morarji, one of the oldest fertilizer companies in India, closed some plants.

With scant domestic supply, India had to import seven million tons of phosphorus-based fertilizers last year, according to a senior official at the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers.

Twenty-one percent of the urea, 67% of the phosphorus-based fertilizers and 100% of the potash-rich fertilizers sold in India in the fiscal year ended March 2009 were imported, according to a report this month from Fitch Ratings.

In the northern state of Punjab, Bhupinder Singh, a turbaned, gray-bearded 55-year-old farmer, stood barefoot in his wheat field in December and pointed to the corner where he had just spread a 110-pound bag of urea.

"Without the urea, my crop looks sick," he said, picking up a few stalks of the young wheat crop and twirling them in his fingers. "The soil is getting weaker and weaker over the last 10 to 15 years. We need more and more urea to get the same yield."

Mr. Singh farms 10 acres in Sohian, a town about 25 miles from the industrial city of Ludhiana. He said his yields of rice have fallen to three tons per acre, from 3.3 tons five years ago. By using twice as much urea, he's been able to squeeze a little higher yield of wheat from the soil—two tons per acre, versus 1.7 tons five years ago.

He said both the wheat and rice harvests should be bigger, considering that he's using so much more urea today than he did five years ago.
Adding urea doesn't have the effect it did in the past, he said, but it's so cheap that it's better than adding nothing at all.

Land needs to be watered more when fertilizer is used, and Mr. Singh worries about the water table under his land. When his parents dug the first well here in 1960, the water table lay 5 feet below the ground, he says. He recently had the same well dug to 55 feet to get enough water.

"The future is not good here," he said, shaking his head.

Balvir Singh, an agriculture development officer for Punjab state, says
it is as if farmers have become addicted to urea.

"One farmer sees another's field looking greener, so he adds more urea," he says. "A farmer will become bankrupt, but he will not stop using urea."

The fertilizer industry, which had lobbied to retain subsidies back in 1991, now sees them as a problem. That's because the government, trying to rein in spending, has been sque ezing the reimbursement promised to fertilizer companies.

The subsidy theoretically gives companies a 12% profit margin. Today, in part because of the way the government calculates the subsidy, it offers the average company a 3% margin, according to K. Rahul Raju, joint managing director of Nagarjuna Fertilizers & Chemicals, and Mr. Awasti, the fertilizer cooperative head.

Farmers in Punjab are increasingly glum.
"Farming is in shambles," said Kamaljit Singh, standing with fellow farmers in the courtyard of the village agriculture cooperative. "If we have to support our growing families and our increasing population on this land, we must get higher yields. Otherwise our families and our nation will suffer."

The Hindu Business Line reports that Indian government in a spot over bumper wheat crop projections.

Govt in a spot over bumper wheat crop projections
Soil moisture, rising temperature may affect output.

G. Chandrashekhar

Mumbai, Feb. 23

There seems to be an orchestrated attempt to project a bumper crop of wheat. While the Agriculture Ministry last week came up with an estimate of 80.2 million tonnes (mt), experts are claiming the crop size to be a record ever and are pegging it higher at 82 mt. The basis of such estimates is unclear. The soil moisture conditions in the principal growing States — Punjab and Haryana — have been less than satisfactory. In Rajasthan, too, the moisture conditions have left much to be desired. The likely adverse effects of rising temperature are too serious to be ignored.

Given the inflationary conditions, there are serious price risks associated with a wheat crop size of less than 80 mt.

Here is a few recent entries from Nogger's Blog on the situation in India.

Thursday, 21 January 2010
India 'Stealing Water' From Pakistan - Affecting Wheat Crop

There's never been a lot of love lost between Pakistan and neighbouring India, now the former is accusing the latter of stealing it's water.

Pakistan's 2010 wheat crop could be cut to around 19-20 MMT, from a government target of 25 MMT and 2009's production of 24 MMT, say analysts.

The reason for the reduction is India cutting up to 50 per cent of the water flow in the Chenab River, putting wheat crops in Punjab at stake, says Pakistani daily The Nation.

The Indian construction of the controversial Baglihar Dam in Occupied Kashmir has caused the closure of three Pakistani canals which met 75 percent of the canal water requirement of Punjab, says the Pakistan President.

Punjab provides around three quarters of Pakistan's wheat crop which is harvested in April/May. Despite winter wheat plantings being seen up 30 percent in irrigated areas, yields could be significantly reduced due to lack of water in the main feeder canals, say experts.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010
Get Me Miss Marple, Quick

Indian Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar says that this season's wheat crop will beat last years output of 80.7 MMT after all, with crop conditions "extremely good".

Indian food price inflation rose to 8.56% in January, the fastest rise in 15 months.

But don't worry, as soon as this season's bumper harvest arrives food inflation will start to fall again, says the minister.

The country already has huge government-owned stocks, and will still have 15 MMT of those left on April 1st (nice choice of date), it says when the new crop harvest gets going.
[These 15 MMT don't exist.]

"The vegetation index in Northwest India (where the bulk of the nation's wheat is grown) has been persistently bad, reflecting stress throughout December and January. Sub-par wheat yields seem likely in the normally productive irrigated wheat states, Punjab and Haryana," says Gail Martell of Martell Crop Projections.

"The whole of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and Eastern Uttar Pradesh have had scanty rainfall. Rising temperature is sure to hurt yields of late planted wheat. So, at this point of time, any euphoria over the wheat crop may be premature," says the Hindu Buiness Line.

Who do you believe?

Wednesday, 17 February 2010
eCBOT Close, Early Call
Some reports suggest that Indian wheat production will not be in the region of 80-82 MMT this spring and that 78 MMT is nearer the mark.

Thursday, 18 February 2010
eCBOT Close, Early Call

There are mixed reports coming out of Pakistan and India concerning the size of their wheat crops. Whilst official estimates remain bullish on crop production there, private reports suggest that output could be down, and maybe significantly so in Pakistan.

With food price inflation soaring, going public with lower output estimates is not in the best interests of the governments there.


Monday, 22 February 2010
Four Seasons In One Weekend

Meanwhile, bent as a nine bob note Indian officials are now saying that the country will produce a record crop of 82 MMT of wheat, and maybe more this year. Chuffed to bits with having nicked all of neighbouring Pakistan's water, a senior scientist with the farm ministry told reporters on Friday that "We are heading for a record harvest of 82 MMT and, God willing, it will be higher still."

Things aren't quite so euphoric over the border in Pakistan where wheat production is expected t o fall around 17% to 20 MMT this year, with output in non-irrigated areas slashed after months of virtually no significant rainfall. Even production in irrigated areas of Punjab, which accounts for around 75% of the national crop, has been affected after India sneakily diverted water away from Pakistani feeder canals to irrigate it's own crops instead. "We didn't do nuffink Guv, we was at Ricky and Bianca's wedding innit," said an Indian official.

Monday, 22 February 2010
eCBOT Close, Early Call
India are adamant that they will have a record wheat crop, despite some reports to the contrary. I guess IF they start exporting then we will know that they are serious. They will need to subsidise any exports heavily though, based on the Rs1,100/100kg they paid Indian farmers for wheat last year, that's USD238/tonne. Egypt bought French and Russian wheat for just USD170/tonne last week.

My reaction: The Indian government's adamant claims that they will have a record wheat crop, in the face of reports to the contrary and rising food inflation, smacks of desperation.

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3 Responses to Food Security Dominates Politics In India

  1. sudhaman says:

    definitely there is goanna be a runaway inflation and tommorow the inflation on food price will be officially out which is headed towards 19pc and higher in the coming weeks which means there is goanna be pain in the ass for the govt to control price rise. they have to sell foreign reserves to rein in on inflation which might happen sooner than later.

  2. sharonsj says:

    I've been reading about the agricultural problems for a few months, so I started stocking up on physical sugar and paying attention to prices. Sugar in the U.S. has gone up about 30-40% and is affecting other packaged foods that contain sugar. I have found the cheapest sugar at Dollar General: 4 lbs for $1.95 (it used to be $1.50 about a week ago!)

  3. sharonsj says:

    I've been reading about the agricultural problems for a few months, so I started stocking up on physical sugar and paying attention to prices. Sugar in the U.S. has gone up about 30-40% and is affecting other packaged foods that contain sugar. I have found the cheapest sugar at Dollar General: 4 lbs for $1.95 (it used to be $1.50 about a week ago!)

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