[email protected],000 – How RBI Played a Part in Creating the Stock Market Bubble

The BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index, crossed 50,000 points today in intra day trading. It has risen by more than 80% from around the end of March, when it had fallen to 27,591 points, in the aftermath of the covid pandemic hitting India.

This astonishing rise has now got the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) worried. The RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das, writing in the foreword to the latest Financial Stability Report, pointed out:

“The disconnect between certain segments of financial markets and the real economy has been accentuating in recent times, both globally and in India.”

People who run central banks are not always known to talk in simple English. Das is only following tradition here. The statement basically refers to stock prices. Das feels they have risen too fast in the recent past and have become disconnected from the overall economy.

While the overall Indian economy is expected to contract this year, the stock market has rallied by more than 80%. How is this possible? Or as you often get to hear these days, if the economy is doing badly, why is the stock market doing so well.

Theoretically, a possible explanation is that the stock market discounts the future and the stock market investors think that the future of the Indian economy is bright. Another explanation offered often by the stock market investors is that corporate profits this year have been at never seen before levels.

But even after taking these reasons into account, the current high level is really not justified. As Das put it in his foreword: “Stretched valuations of financial assets pose risks to financial stability.” One way to figure out whether valuations are stretched is to look at the price to earnings ratio of the stocks that constitute the Sensex index.

In January 2021, the price to earnings ratio has been at around 34. This means that investors are ready to pay Rs 34 as price, for every rupee of earning of the companies that make up for the Sensex. Such a high level of the price to earnings ratio has never been seen before. Not even in late 2007 and early 2008, when stock prices rallied big time or the first half of 2000, when the dotcom bubble was on.

Clearly, stock prices are in extremely bubbly territory. The current jump in corporate earnings isn’t sustainable for the simple reason that corporates have pushed up earnings by cutting employee costs as well as raw material costs. This means the incomes of those dealing with corporates from employees to suppliers and contractors, have fallen.

This fall in income has limited the ability of these individuals to spend money. This will lead to lower private consumption in the months to come, which, in turn, will impact corporate revenues and eventually profits. A sustainable increase in profits can only happen when people keep buying things and corporate revenues keep going up.

This brings us back to the question as to why stock prices are going up, when the overall economy is not doing well. A part of the reason is the RBI, though the central bank, rather expectedly, glosses over this totally in the latest edition of the Financial Stability Report.

Since February 2020, the RBI has pumped in a massive amount of money into the financial system through various measures, some of which involve the printing of money. By flooding the financial system with money, or what central banks refer to as liquidity, the RBI has ensured that interest rates in general and bank deposits in particular, have fallen.

The idea here is threefold. A drop in interest rates allows the government to borrow at lower interest rates. This became necessary because thanks to the pandemic, the tax collections of the government have dropped during this financial year. Between April and November 2020, the gross tax revenue stood at Rs 10.26 lakh crore, a drop of 12.6% in comparison to the same period in 2019.

Secondly, lower interest rates ensured that the interest costs of corporates on their outstanding loans, came down. Also, the hope was that at lower interest rates, corporates will borrow and expand.

Thirdly, at lower interest rates, the hope always is that people will borrow and spend more, and all these factors will lead to a faster economic recovery.

But there is a flip side to all this as well. A fall in interest rates has got people looking for a higher return. This has led to many individuals buying stocks, in the hope of a higher return and thus driving up prices to astonishingly high levels.

This can be gauged from the fact that in 2020, the number of demat accounts, which are necessary to buy and sell stocks, went up by nearly a fourth to 4.86 crore accounts. One of the reasons for this is the rise of Robinhood investing in India. This term comes from the American stock brokerage firm Robinhood which offers free online trading in stocks. India has seen the rise of similar stock brokerages offering free trading.

What has added to this is the fact that many unemployed individuals have turned to stock trading to make a quick buck. All it needs is a smartphone, a cheap internet connection and a low-cost brokerage account.

Of course, this search for a higher return isn’t local, it’s global. Hence, foreign institutional investors have invested a whopping $31.6 billion in Indian stocks during this financial year, the highest ever. This stems from the fact that Western central banks, like the RBI, have printed a huge amount of money to drive down interest rates.

This has pushed more and more investors into buying stocks despite the fact that the global economy isn’t doing well either.

A slightly different version of this column appeared in the Deccan Herald on January 17, 2021. It was updated after the Sensex first crossed 50,000 points during intra day trading on January 21, 2021.

2021 – The Chinese Problem in Your Personal Finance

Dear Reader, before you start thinking that I have click-baited you one more time, let me assure you that’s not true. Your personal finances in 2021 will actually face a Chinese problem.

But before we go into this, let’s first understand a few aspects about the Chinese saving habit over the years. Let’s look at this pointwise.

1) As is well known, the Chinese physical infrastructure over the years was funded through massive domestic savings being invested in bank deposits. As Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan write in The Great Demographic Reversal: “Interest rates were set well below the rate of growth and the rate of inflation. While the economy grew on average by around 10% over 1990–2010, the inflation-adjusted deposit rate over the same period averaged −3.3% (for a 1.4% average for the nominal deposit rate versus an average annual inflation rate of 4.75%).”

Hence, the rate of interest rate was lower than the prevailing rate of inflation, for a period of two decades. If one were to state this in a simple way, the low interest rates acted effectively as a tax on Chinese households.

2) This tax did not matter much because the savings were channelised into investments. This created economic growth and the average income of a Chinese kept going up, year on year. Hence, while the interest being earned on the accumulated wealth was low, the regular yearly income kept going up.

3) Low interest rates led to an interesting behaviour at the household level. As Goodhart and Pradhan point out, there was “a negative correlation between urban savings and the decline in real deposit rates.” “When banks fail to protect household savings, households tend to save more, not less, in order to achieve a ‘target’, whether that is for education or the purchase of a home.”
Basically, given the negative real rate of interest on bank deposits, where inflation was higher than the interest rate, Chinese households saved more money in bank deposits in order to achieve their targeted savings. Options of investing in other avenues were extremely limited.

Now the question is how does all this apply to your personal finance in India in 2021. Allow me to explain pointwise.

1) Interest rates on bank fixed deposits have collapsed. The interest offered on fixed deposits of more than one year, currently stands at around 5.5% on an average. This when the rate of inflation as measured by the consumer price index in November 2020 stood at 6.93%. Hence, the real rate of interest is in negative territory. If after tax the rate of return on fixed deposits is taken into account, the gap gets even bigger.

2) The major reason for this collapse in interest rates has been a collapse in bank lending. Given that banks, on the whole, have barely given out fresh loans since March, they possibly couldn’t keep paying a high rate of interest on deposits. Hence, the crash in interest rates. But what has added to this is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) policy of flooding the financial system with money, in order to drive down interest rates further. The excess money in the financial system, which the banks deposit with the RBI, stood at Rs 6.25 lakh crore as of December 31, 2020.

3) From the indications that the RBI has given, this excess liquidity in the financial system is likely to continue. The idea is to help ease the burden on current loans of corporates. In a year the tax collections have collapsed this also helps the government to borrow at extremely low interest rates. At the same time, the hope is at lower interest rates corporates will borrow and expand. But that is not happening. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows that announcements of new investment projects in terms of value fell by 88.3% during the period October to December 2020. Investment projects completed were down by 74%. So, the corporates aren’t in the mood to borrow and expand.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Many corporates continue to remain over-leveraged. Still others don’t have enough confidence in India’s economic future, irrespective of what they say in the public domain. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

4) What does all this have to do with personal finance? What happened in China is happening in India as well. The bank savings have gone up dramatically during 2020. Between March 27 and December 18, they were up by Rs 9.15 lakh crore. In comparison, the increase during similar periods in 2019 and 2018, had stood at Rs 4.35 lakh crore and Rs 3.90 lakh crore, respectively. Of course, all this increase in saving is not just because of low interest rates. Some of it is because of fewer opportunities to spend money in 2020. Some of it is because of the general uncertainty that prevails. Some of it is because of jobs losses and the fear of job losses. And some of it is because Indians, like the Chinese, are saving more, in order to achieve the savings target for the education of their children or their weddings, or for the purchase of a home.

5) This has repercussions. With people saving more and with banks being unable to lend that money, interest rates have come down. And people saving more in response to the lower interest rates, means extended lower interest rates. This is not good news for savers. It is also not good news for consumption. If people are saving more, they are clearly spending lesser. This is the paradox of thrift or saving. When an individual saves more, it makes sense for him or her at an individual level. When the society as a whole saves much more than it was, it hurts the economy simply because one man’s spending is another man’s income. Over a period of time, this leads to job losses, more paradox of thrift and further job losses.

At the risk of sounding very cliched, there is no free lunch in economics. The RBI’s policy of flooding the financial system with money in order to help the corporates and the government, is basically hurting individual savers, consumption and the overall economy. The savers are paying for this lunch. And unlike the corporates, the savers have no unified voice. The government, obviously, is the government.

While, there is no denying that with lending not happening bank deposit rates had to fall, but the RBI policy of driving them down further, is something that is hurting the economy.

6) So, where does that leave the Indian saver? Some individual savers are betting on the stock market. But the price to earnings ratio of the Nifty 50 index as of January 1, stood at 38.55, an all-time high level. If you have the heart to invest in stocks at such a level, best of luck to you. Some others are betting on bitcoin, which has given a return of more than 75% in dollar terms, in the last one month.

Also, unlike the Chinese, the prospects of an increase in the yearly income of an average Indian, over the next years, at best remain subdued. Hence, the humble Indian fixed depositor, who liked to fill it, shut it and forget about it, so that he could concentrate on many other issues that his or her life keeps throwing up, clearly has a problem in 2021.

To conclude, all of you who write to me asking for a safe way of investing so that you can earn a 10% yearly return, well, sorry to disappoint you, no such way exists. At least not in 2021. Of course, there are always Ponzi schemes to invest in, some fraudulent, and some not so fraudulent.

The choice is yours to make.

PS: Wishing all my readers a very Happy New Year. Hope 2021 is much better than 2020 was for each one of you.

Mumbai Mirror Shutting Down and the Screwed Up Business Model of India Media

Alibaba mil gaya chaalis choron se – Anand Bakshi, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Runa Laila, Aadesh Shrivastava and Mukul Anand, in Agneepath (1990).

There was a time when I bought and tried to read eight daily newspapers. Two things led to a change on this front. The first reason was very practical. Apartments in Mumbai are small and buying eight newspapers for six days a week (I took a break on Sundays), meant that the raddi accumulated very quickly and took up a lot of space.

The second reason was something I learnt from experience. Most news is just noise. Following noise helps if you are a news reporter because that is precisely your job. But if you are looking to understand the big picture and not miss the wood for the trees, as I was, it made sense to ignore most news that was published and train the mind to look at a few limited things which mattered. (Also, with the internet, one could always Google up the noise later, if the need arose).

This led to a massive cutdown in the newspaper buying habit. Also, around early 2007, I went fully digital, rarely buying physical copies. Hence, I have been reading e-papers now for close to fourteen years. Of course, unlike earlier, I seriously read only two newspapers (on most days) and sort of flip through a third one. And now one of the newspapers which I read seriously, Mumbai Mirror, is shutting down.

This development has made me take a look at the economics of the Indian media, newspapers and digital, in particular. TV news is an entirely different beast, which I do not understand well enough to be writing about. I will also look at the entire issue from the point of view of readers and try to explain why things have become very tricky.
Let’s take a look at the issue pointwise.

1) Indian newspapers, the way they have evolved over the years, have totally become advertisement driven. Depending on who you ask, you are likely to be told that the split between advertisement revenue and subscription revenue, is 80:20 or 90:10, for that matter.

The point being that the readers are not consumers for newspapers, but the product, which is sold to corporates who advertise. Now in a post-corona world, the advertisements in newspapers have come down. Mumbai Mirror used to have an edition of 36 pages on most days before the covid pandemic struck. After covid, the size of the edition barely went beyond 16-18 pages on most days.

Clearly, the newspaper hadn’t been getting enough advertisements, hence, the decision to shut it down. One can also speculate here that the sales of physical copies of newspapers have crashed post the pandemic and are nowhere near what they used to be (I mean newspapers in general here). That’s one reason to possibly explain the lack of advertisements in Mumbai Mirror.
Also, the main reason behind setting up Mumbai Mirror doesn’t exist anymore. The Times Group started the newspaper in 2005, to protect its prime brand, the Mumbai edition of The Times of India, from the Daily News and Analysis (DNA). The Mumbai edition of DNA was launched in July 2005. The other reason behind launching the Mumbai Mirror was to also protect Mumbai edition of The Times of India from The Hindustan Times, which launched a Mumbai edition in July 2005 as well.
DNA was shut down in October 2019, though the newspaper had been down in the dumps for close to a decade before that.

Given this, the Times Group, which looks at its publications not as news ventures but as products which solicit advertising, decided to cut down on its losses.

2) In the last couple of years, many media houses have put their epapers behind the paywall. Some media houses now offer only a certain number of articles per month free, beyond that the reader needs to subscribe (Honestly, there are very simple hacks available to get around this).

While, this might be a sensible thing to do, the chances of it working out quickly are very low. The Western newspapers which have been successful in raising a substantial portion of their revenues digitally, have been at it for almost two decades. Off the record conversations with a few higherups in the newspaper space tell me that digital doesn’t bring in much money currently.

Also, a lot of the digital strategy of the Indian news media is all over the place. Like in the recent past, almost everybody has launched podcasts, without having the most basic infrastructure in place. The recordings of many of these podcasts are absolutely terrible (There are podcasts out there whose production values are superb as well, but that is more an exception which proves the rule). Of course, very few of these podcasts, like most of the digital media, earn any money. They have been launched because everyone else has also done so.

3) One of the theories that has been propounded in the recent past is that the media will survive and report the news that it should, only if the readers pay for the news they consume. Right now most news consumption is free.  Honestly, I have subscribed to this theory as well at some point of time.

But now I am very sceptical of this argument. Let me offer a few reasons for the same. With corporate advertising taking a beating, the news media as a whole is now dependent on government advertising more than ever before. Revenues from the digital media cannot fill the gap because of the fall in corporate advertising.

Hence, the media as a whole needs to keep government(s) in good humour, so that the advertisements keep coming in. Also, other than this economic incentive, the other reason is simple political pressure and the fact that any government has a lot of nuisance value. The current central government thrives on projecting narratives which it wants to and for that it needs the so-called national media on its side. This will stop the media from covering news items like they should.

To cut a long story short, just because you, dear reader, have bought an annual digital subscription which cost Rs 1,000-2,500, it doesn’t mean that the news media will start reporting news the way they should. Propaganda and spin will continue to be the order of the day.

4) Another phenomenon being seen is the rise of paid-newsletters. Some newsletters have achieved some scale and a few thousand paid subscribers. This is often offered as an example of how people are willing to pay for stuff which is written and presented well. While this is a good development, one needs to take into account the fact that the paid-newsletters are extremely niche with a large focus on the private equity, venture capital space, stock market investors etc.

At best they look at business and corporate stories. This doesn’t fulfil the need for the media being the fourth pillar in a democracy. A few thousand people paying for some news they consume isn’t going to help either the Indian media or the Indian democracy in any way, for that matter.

5) Another recent phenomenon has been that of out of work journalists starting their own newsletters and charging for it. While I have no specific idea of how well these newsletters are doing, I can tell you from my own experience that the point about at least 10% of your social media followers will end up paying for the newsletter, is a lot of bunkum. If you can get even 10% of your social media following to click on what you write, you will be doing a decent job of it, forget paying for the content.

6) Also, with newspapers and websites going behind a paywall, WhatsApp forwards and false news, will gain greater legitimacy as people will have easy access to them than genuine news.

As Alan Rusbridger writes in Breaking News – The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now: “Bad information [is] everywhere: good information [is] increasingly for smaller elites. It [is] harder for good information to compete on equal terms with bad.”

It is very easy to put out bad information out there on the social media, after the fixed cost of a mobile phone or a cheap laptop and an internet connection has been met. The marginal cost after the fixed cost has been met, is almost zero. Politicians and political parties will continue to thrive on this.

7) Where does all this leave news-media houses? A basic point that MBAs who run these organisations haven’t seem to have understood is that today’s reader doesn’t get his news from just one source like the old days, when most families subscribed to one newspaper or at best two newspapers and/or a weekly magazine.

Today’s reader likes to read from multiple sources, basically whatever he finds interesting enough and/or whatever gets shared with him on WhatsApp or social media. Media houses clearly haven’t caught up on this trend. They still want readers to make an upfront payment and commit to a subscription of at least one month.

It’s time that they started adopting micro-payments and pricing their digital stories for as low as five bucks and let people pay for it, if it interests them. Other than offering people choice, this will allow news media houses to tackle the subscription fatigue that will set in sooner rather than later.

It is important to remember here that news media is competing not just with other news media, it is also competing with over the top (OTT) media platforms like Hotstar, Amazon Prime, Netflix, SonLiv etc., for a share of the consumer’s wallet as well as his time and mind-space.

Other than Netflix, which is on the expensive side, the cost of subscribing to other OTTs is quite cheap. The news-media is competing with these OTT platforms as well.

7) Talking about competition, news media houses are now also competing with individual content creators, who have a strong presence on YouTube. Some of these content creators, who focus on delivering free as well as paywalled video content around the important news of the day and cut the clutter, have huge social media followings. Their business model rests around seeking donations from their followers. These donations can be as low as Rs 10. This makes another case for micropayments.

To conclude, common sense suggests that it will be easier to get people to pay for news digitally, if the amounts involved are small. As far as readers are concerned, there are no guarantees that they will get what they are looking for, even if they are ready to pay. One solution is to follow and support individuals like me who are trying to put out stuff they feel people should know about and which the mainstream media isn’t writing about. Nevertheless, the problem there is that there is only so much an individual can do and it is very difficult for individuals to be consistent day and day out.

Disclosure: I worked for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) between October 2005 and September 2010. I also worked for the Times Group between October 2010 and March 2012.

 

Why Large Parts of North India Turn Dystopian Every Winter

Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Burning of rice residues in SE Punjab, India, prior to the wheat season.
— Picture by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Burning of rice residues in Punjab, India, prior to the wheat season.

In the end, it’s all about incentives, perverse or otherwise.

My parents moved to Delhi in 2009, after my father retired from Coal India. Since then I have spent all Diwalis in Delhi, though this Diwali due to reasons beyond my control, I will most probably be in Mumbai.

The last few Diwalis in Delhi have been very difficult for me. In fact, last year, I could smell smoke inside the house even before the Diwali day (so, it was clearly not because of crackers). Delhi and many other parts of North India go totally dystopian during winters.

On some days when one gets up and looks out of the window, there is so much smog that one gets a feeling that Armageddon is here.

One of the primary reasons for this smog/pollution is the rice stubble burning that happens in Punjab, Haryana, parts of Uttarakhand and Western Uttar Pradesh. From the looks of it, the situation doesn’t seem to be very different this year.

Newsreports suggest that stubble burning is currently on and was responsible for 40% of Delhi’s pollution on November 1, the highest it has been so far this season. Last year on the same day, the stubble burning’s contribution to Delhi’s pollution had stood at 44% on November 1.

Let’s try and understand this issue in detail and why it happens every year.

This is a great story of how noble intentions on part of politicians and bureaucrats (yes, you read that right) along with incentives that seem right when they are introduced, can really screw up things in the years to come.

And once a system is in place, right or wrong, it is difficult to change it, given that many individuals benefit from the status quo.

Why do farmers burn rice paddy stubble?

They do it primarily because the time farmers have between harvesting rice paddy and sowing the wheat crop, is very short. That’s the short answer. But there is a lot more to it than just this.

Mechanical harvesters found their way into Punjab sometime in the early 1980s. Around four-fifths of the rice crop is harvested using combine harvesters and not human beings (if you still thought humans being carry out harvesting in Punjab, you haven’t moved beyond Hindi cinema of the 1960s).

These harvesters cut and clean rice from the rice paddy, but they leave behind straws on the field. These straws are six to eight inches long and for all practical purposes are useless.

The straws remaining after harvesting of wheat can be used as animal fodder. Rice straw cannot be used as animal fodder primarily because of its high silica content. If this straw is used as animal fodder, it impacts the quality of milk, with the quantity of calcium in the milk coming down. This is not true about straw left behind after harvesting basmati rice, which has low silica content.

But basmati is grown only in a limited area. Like this year, rice was planted on a total area of 27.36 lakh hectares. Of this, basmati was planted on around 6.5 lakh hectares or 24% of the total area under rice. This was primarily because the government does not buy basmati rice under the minimum support price (MSP) structure. (We shall look at this in detail later).

Farmers have a time of around 10-15 days for removing the rice straw and get the fields ready for planting wheat. The easiest thing in this situation is to burn the rice straw. All it takes is a single well-lit matchstick. The cost is close to zero.

This burning leads to higher pollution and deterioration of air quality even in places hundreds of kilometres away. The heat from burning the rice straw leads to an increase in soil temperature which kills beneficial soil organisms. The burning is also a potential source for greenhouse gases. Also, it is worth remembering that the burning of post-harvest rice stubble forms around 50% of the all the crop residue burning in the country.

Let’s take a look at stubble burning in incidences reported in Punjab and Haryana, where most of the burning takes place.

Source: Price Policy for Kharif Crops – The Marketing Season of 2020-2021, Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices.

As can be seen from above table, the number of stubble burning incidents have come down over the years. The total number of incidents in Punjab and Haryana have come down by 52% between 2016 and 2019. In 2016, the total number of incidents had stood at 1,18,065. By 2019, this was down to 56,742.

So there has been some improvement on the number of fires front over the years. But there are other ways of looking at the situation; the total weight of the stubble burned and the total area of stubble burned. The Chief Secretary of Punjab Vini Mahajan said on October 31, that the total straw burning area in 2020 was 7.49 lakh hectares, which was 5.23% lower in comparison to 7.90 lakh hectares last year.

A Amarender Reddy, the principal scientist at the ICAR-Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture recently wrote in The Wire that last year the farmers burnt 11 million tonnes of rice stubble in Punjab and Haryana. This is a little over 40% of the total stubble of 27 million tonnes of rice stubble produced in both the states. Reddy expects the figure to be the same this year.

There has been some improvement on the paddy burning front. One reason has been the distribution of Happy Seeder, a machine which cuts rice stubble and plants wheat seeds at the same time. Reddy writes that the Punjab government has distributed around 24,000 Happy Seeder machines though the state needs nearly 50,000 seeder machines to remove all the rice stubble in the short period of time available before wheat seeds are planted.

Also, farmers have complained about low germination of wheat seeds when the Happy Seeder machine is used. The central government, like most central governments, has allocated more money to solve the problem. Using this money, machines to tackle the rice stubble can be bought at a subsidy.

While, all this is fine, it doesn’t answer the most basic question: why do semi-arid states like Punjab and Haryana, grow a water-intensive crop like rice paddy in the first place?

Why Punjab and Haryana grow rice?

Punjab has the highest yield of 4,132 kgs per hectare when it comes to rice, against the all India yield of 2,659 kgs per hectare. The rice productivity in Haryana is better than the all India average and is at 3,121 kgs per hectare. But this does not take into account the total amount of water used to produce this rice.

As the document titled The Price Policy for Kharif Crops: The Marketing Season for 2016-17, brought out by the Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices, points out:

“If water consumption is measured in terms of per kilogram of rice, West Bengal becomes the most efficient state, which consumes 2,169 litres to produce one kg of rice, followed by Assam (2,432 litres) and Karnataka (2,635 litres). The water use is high in Punjab (4,118 litres), Tamil Nadu (4,557 litres) and Uttar Pradesh (4,384 litres). … [This] shows that the most efficient state in terms of land productivity is not necessarily the most efficient if irrigation water is factored into. This is because of high rainfall in the eastern region.”

Haryana also uses a lot of water to grow rice.

What this means is that Punjab and Haryana given that they are semi-arid water deficient areas, should not be growing rice in the first place. In the early sixties, Punjab used to grow crops which did not require a lot of water. These included maize, bajra, pulses, oilseeds etc. But over the years, the share of these crops in the overall cropped area has come down dramatically. Take a look at the following table.

Source: Economic Survey of Punjab, 2019-20.

Rice paddy was grown only on 4.8% of cropped area in 1960-61. In 2018-19 it was grown on around 39.6% of cropped area. What happened here? Sometime in the mid 1960s, the central government launched the Green Revolution in Punjab, in order to build food security in India and reduce our dependence on import of American wheat under the Public Law 480 (PL -480).

The farmers were encouraged to plant a high-yielding variety of wheat. In order to incentivise them, the government bought this wheat from them at a minimum support price (MSP) which was declared every year.

A look at the above table tells us that the cropped area under wheat jumped from 27.3% in 1960-61 to 40.5% in 1970-71. The fact that the government bought the wheat at the MSP, led to an increase in wheat plantation.

The government started buying rice at an MSP as well. This led to a jump in number of farmers planting rice in Punjab and Haryana because they had a readymade customer in the government willing to buy at a fixed price. They weren’t subject to the vagaries of price and India’s underdeveloped agricultural marketing system.

The farmers were first incentivised to grow wheat (rightly) and then incentivised to grow rice as well (right from the point of food security, but wrong from all other angles).

Take a look at the following chart which plots the total amount of area on which rice has been planted in Punjab, over the years.

Source: http://punenvis.nic.in/index3.aspx?sslid=5882&subsublinkid=4993&langid=1&mid=1 and Agricultural Statistics at a Glance 2019.

As can be seen there was a major jump in the area under rice production between 1970-71 and 1990-91, from 0.39 million hectare to 2.02 million hectare. This was primarily because of rice being bought by the government at a minimum support price announced every year. The next jump came in the mid 1990s.

In the year 1997, free electricity for farmers was introduced in Punjab. This encouraged farmers to grow rice even more. They could now pump groundwater for free. This could be used to grow rice. Take a look at the following table, which plots the number of tube wells in the state over the years.

Number of tubewells (in lakhs)

Source: Economic Survey of Punjab, 2019-20.

As can be seen from the above table, the number of electrically operated tube wells has gone up dramatically over the years. In 2018-19, the number is more than 13 lakhs. With free electricity, farmers were incentivised to buy electricity operated tube wells and pump as much ground water as required to grow rice.

This has led to the exploitation of groundwater. As the latest Economic Survey of Punjab points out:

“A state-wise assessment of the groundwater resources in the country showed that 80% of 138 blocks assessed were ‘Over-exploited’, 2 blocks were ‘Critical’, 5 were ‘Semi-Critical’, and 22 were ‘Safe’.”

In fact, 95% of groundwater is extracted for the purpose of irrigation.

Along with this, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) buys up a bulk of the rice produced in the state. It is worth remembering here that Punjab is not much of a rice eating state. Take a look at the following chart.

Procurement of rice in major producing states.


Source: Price Policy for Kharif Crops – The Marketing Season of 2020-21.

In 2018-19, Punjab produced around 12.82 million tonnes of rice. Of this, 11.4 million tonnes was procured by the government through FCI and other state procurement agencies. In Haryana, around 4.5 million tonnes of rice was grown. Of this, around 85% was procured. The major reason for this lies in the fact that given that the green revolution started here, FCI has the best infrastructure to procure and store foodgrains, in this area.

The government doesn’t procure basmati under MSP because there is a huge international demand, given its fragrant smell when cooked. Hence, farmers don’t plant much of it. While there is international demand, the farmers also need to suffer the vagaries of price.

This easy procurement along with free electricity encourages farmers to grow rice in what is largely a semi-arid area. But this still does not explain how the farmers came around to burning rice paddy stubble. I mean, I have been going to Delhi for more than 35 years now, but the city was never dystopian during winters earlier. This is clearly a phenomenon of the last decade. What changed?

What led to farmers burning rice stubble?

As we have seen, the government policies over the years, have incentivised farmers to grow rice. At the same time, these policies have led to the water table in Punjab falling dramatically. Given this, the government had to something about this and it did. (I am talking more about Punjab than Haryana here, simply because the number of fires in Punjab is many times more).

As the Economic Survey of Punjab points out:

“It requires 4,500 litres of water to grow one kg of sathi rice when it is sown in April-May. But if sowing is done around mid-June, water requirement reduces to 1,500-2,000 litres. Water requirement is high in April-May because the evaporation rate is high and there is no rain. As a result, all the water used in irrigation is groundwater. In June-July, rainfall supports water needs of the crop.”

This logic essentially led to the enactment of the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act in 2009. As per this law, farmers are not allowed to sow paddy seeds in nurseries before May 10. They are not allowed to transplant the saplings before June 10. The idea being that by the time farmers start transplanting the saplings in the fields, the Monsoon would have already arrived and hence, lesser groundwater will be used to grow rice. Haryana has a similar law.

The intention behind the law was noble, but the incentive it created for the farmer was again perverse. The end to end production of rice takes 120 days. The process of growing rice used to start in April earlier. But this was pushed back by a month due to the law to prevent the overexploitation of groundwater.

This led to a situation where farmers were left with a time of around 15 days to get their fields ready for the plantation of wheat. The quickest way to turnaround is to burn the rice stubble and that is precisely what has been happening for the last decade.

History plus perverse incentives are at the heart of this problem.

What’s the way out of this?

The central government recently told the Supreme Court that it was planning to bring a new law to tackle the stubble burning problem. This is a classic way of how any government tries to tackle a long-term problem. They either bring a new law or throw money at it, in the hope of solving the problem.

But the question is will this law or any law be of help? The Punjab government did bring in a law to solve one problem and ended up creating another one, without really solving the first one.

In the short-term, innovations like the Happy Seeder have clearly helped. But the problem can only be solved if the Punjabi and other farmers in the semi-arid areas of North India are incentivised to not grow rice and to grow other crops which do not require a lot of water.

But at the risk of repeating a cliché, it is easier said than done.

Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) Over the years, the government has bought much more rice and wheat than it needs to maintain the operational reserve and the strategic reserve. Like in September, the rice stock in the central pool of the FCI was at 22.2 million tonnes. As of October every year, FCI needs to maintain an operational reserve of 8.25 million tonnes and a strategic reserve of 2 million tonnes. Clearly, the FCI has much more rice than is required.

This reserve can be brought down by buying lesser rice in the time to come. If this policy is followed for a few years, the farmers will automatically be disincentivised to grow rice. If they are disincentivised to grow rice, there will be lesser rice stubble to burn.

Of course, this is a politically risky move and in the process a section of farmers is bound to face losses, until they move away from growing rice.

2) Another way is to buy more rice from states like West Bengal, which is best suited to be growing rice, given it uses less water to grow rice, in comparison to other states. In fact, West Bengal produced 16.05 million tonnes of rice in 2018-19. Of this, the government purchased just 1.9 million tonnes. The point to remember here is that West Bengal is a rice eating state.

So, unlike Punjab the government cannot buy almost all the rice that is produced. Hence, buying by the central government shouldn’t lead to a shortage of rice in the state, forcing it to buy rice from other states, in the process. The solution lies in helping increase the rice yield per hectare in the state. In 2018-19, West Bengal produced 2,906 kgs of rice per hectare. This was significantly lower than Punjab’s 4,132 kgs per hectare, but more than the national average of 2,659 kgs per hectare.

3) The most important way in weaning away farmers from rice is to change incentives. Let me offer an analogy here. Why does a wealth manager/insurance agent/personal banker/mutual fund agent mis-sell? Simply because their incentives are so aligned.

Along similar lines, if the farmer has an incentive to grow rice (and unlike financial salesmen, the incentive here is an honest one), he will grow rice. We can’t judge him for this.

One way out is to encourage farmers to grow maize, like they used to in the sixties. In 1960-61, 6.9% of the total cropped area in Punjab was used to grow maize. By 2018-19, this had fallen to 1.4%. As the document titled Price Policy for Kharif Crops—The Marketing Season of 2020-21 points out: “Maize cultivation is more water efficient than rice… [It has] a great potential for crop diversification in rice-wheat cropping system areas of north-western plains, where substantial groundwater depletion has occurred.”

The trouble is that maize has low profitability in comparison to rice “due to low and fluctuating prices and yield of maize.”

As the Price Policy document points out:

“There is a need to find alternative uses of maize in the country for industrial uses like feed, starch and ethanol as well as for direct consumption, mainly value-added products… Allowing maize as raw material for ethanol production would help in crop diversification and ensure remunerative prices to farmers.”

This will help increase the demand for maize and help increase its price.

Along similar lines, there is a need to encourage and incentivise the growing of pulses and oilseeds, which we don’t grow enough of. As the Price Policy document points out:

“Instead of promoting water-intensive crops like rice… it is important to promote production of pulses and oilseeds by encouraging farmers to grow these crops by providing better quality seeds, technology and appropriate price support to address gap between domestic production and consumption and maintain stability in the domestic market.”

The fact of the matter is that the private agriculture markets in the country don’t function well. At the same time, in order to encourage farmers to grow particular crops, the government cannot buy a large amount of it, like it buys rice and wheat, simply because it doesn’t have enough money to do so or the right infrastructure to store what it has bought. Pulses are an excellent example. The reason FCI cannot buy pulses is simply because it doesn’t have the right infrastructure to store them.

In this scenario, getting farmers to grow something other than rice is going to be very difficult and will take a lot of concentrated effort on part of the politicians as well as bureaucrats. Will that happen? On that your guess is as good as mine.

The moral of the story being, just because there is a problem, doesn’t mean it has an immediately implementable solution.