Commentary

Food inflation threatens Congress coalition

CHENNAI, India — French Queen Marie Antoinette’s sarcastic suggestion that her starving subjects eat cake instead of bread turned out to be the spark that ignited the French Revolution. In the end, the queen paid with her head.

In India, it is not a case of bread but rice and onions, the most important everyday staple foods. Of course, nobody has dared to ask people to consume sweetmeat in India instead.

In a nation of billion-plus population, where 76 percent live on just 25 rupees a day, onion sells at 70 rupees a kilogram, rice at 50 rupees, and tomatoes are 80 rupees. Food is the most expensive part of a family’s budget. The price of onions shot up more than 46 percent in the first three weeks of December and 67 percent over the year.

While onion prices ruled merry, hundreds of sacks of them were being exported to Pakistan. It was only after an angry opposition protest that the exports were stopped, and stocks diverted to the local market. Even then the price did not fall appreciably.

In recent weeks, food prices jumped 18.3 percent, giving the government and the Reserve Bank of India a massive headache, and despite an assurance by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, there is little possibility that the prices will drop below 6 percent by March.

The current food inflation was widely anticipated many months ago. Although the production of cereals, pulses and sugar was steady with even their prices falling marginally, those of vegetables, meat and eggs shot up. An important reason for this was the unseasonal rains in the past few months that either destroyed vegetable crops or exposed them to pests that reduced their production and thus made them dearer.

With vegetables vanishing from kitchens, people made larger purchases of meat and eggs as substitutes, pushing these prices up. Obviously, not enough meat or eggs could be produced to meet the rising needs.

In addition, the demand for fruits and vegetables has been rising in the past few years primarily for two reasons: population growth and better urban incomes.

This disparity between demand and supply is not likely to vanish anytime soon. Fruits and vegetables are still cultivated through archaic methods. Hardly any modern technology is being implemented. Although several transgenic varieties of crops, which are herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant, have been developed, they are still in the lab and not in the fields, where they could make a remarkable difference to yield and quality.

Experts aver that the coming years will see a greater demand for fruits and vegetables, and not so much for cereals — with greater awareness for health. Nutritionists and doctors have been suggesting less cereal and more vegetables to offset lifestyle diseases. So, it is imperative that vegetable and fruit production is given more attention than what they now get. Indeed, the change in eating habits is perceptible now: One finds more vegetables on the plate than rice or wheat in India.

This brings us to a vital question. How does the government hope to address the rising need for vegetables and fruits, and keep their prices in check? Unfortunately, in an essentially agrarian economy like India, government spending on agriculture is still inadequate and the distribution system abysmal as grain rots away in storehouses or is eaten by rats and dogs, while people starve.

These problems have stubbornly kept food out of the reach of the common man. The prices have been ruling artificially high for many years now.

It is only when the monsoon is really bountiful that food prices tend to dip, and the government has made rainfall an almost permanent card to dangle before the masses.

What is being missed by the ordinary Indian is that by the time food prices stabilize after a good monsoon, the country goes back to square one.

Food inflation in India may not cause a revolution, as it once did in France, but it could be reason enough for a government to fall, and the present coalition headed by the Congress party must understand this sooner than later.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India-based journalist.

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