There are no free lunches in life, though at times its not obvious who is footing the bill. Take the case of the right to food security bill which guarantees 80 crore Indians or two thirds of the population, subsidised rice, wheat and cereals.
The bill proposes to provide 5 kg of food grains to an individual every month at the rate of Rs 3 per kg of rice, Rs 2 per kg of wheat and Rs 1 per kg of cereals. The food minister KV Thomas expects that the extra burden on food subsidy will be about Rs 20,000 crore. Also 61.23 million tonnes of food grain would be needed.
Prima facie this is a very noble idea. But the question is who will be footing the bill for this? The answer is the tax paying salaried middle class. Allow me to explain.
In the financial year 2011-2012 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2011 and March 31,2012) the Indian government through the Food Corporation of India(FCI) and other agencies procured 63 million tonnes of grains (primarily rice and wheat).
If the right to food security bill is passed by the Parliament (as it is likely to be, why would any political party in their right sense oppose it?), the government will have to procure a greater amount of grains. The government estimates suggest that 61.23 million tonnes of food grain will be needed just to meet the requirements of the right to food security. There are other government food programmes running as well, and hence the 63 million tonnes of grain that the government currently procures may not be enough.
So the government will have to buy a greater amount of grain in the coming years. In order to do that it will have to keep offering a higher price. The government sets a minimum support price(MSP) for wheat and rice (and other agricultural commodities as well) every year and this has been going up over the last few years.
FCI and other state agencies acting on the government’s behalf buy grains produced by the farmer at the MSP. In the years to come the government is likely to buy more rice and wheat at a higher MSP. This means a lesser amount of rice and wheat will land up in the open market and thus push up prices. This argument does not work only if the amount of rice and wheat being produced goes up significantly and that cannot happen immediately in the short run.
Who does this hurt the most? The tax paying salaried middle class is the answer as they will have to pay more and more for the food that they buy.
There are other problems as well. The total storage capacity of FCI as on April 1, 2012, stood at 33.6 million tonnes. The Central Warehousing Corporation has 466 warehouses with a total capacity of 10.56 million tonnes. This brings the total storage capacity of the central government to a little over 44 million tonnes. Then there is the storage capacities of various state warehousing corporations which are also used to store grains. But even with that the government does not have enough storage capacity to store the amount of grain that it currently procures and will have to procure from the farmers in the years to come.
This means more grains will be dumped in the open and will rot as a result. As The Indian Express wrote in an editorial yesterday “The government will be required to procure more foodgrain at a huge cost, which would require pushing procurement prices even higher, creating storage facilities, and distributing the partly rotted foodgrain through a dysfunctional public distribution system.”
So more rotten food grain will be distributed in the years to come.
The major reasoning behind right to food security is that if subsidised food is offered to people, their nutrition will improve. This is not always the case. Abhijit Banerjee, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains this through an example. “We carried out a nice experiment in China. We gave some people a voucher to buy cheap rice. Instead of buying rice lets say for Rs 10, they could buy it for Rs 2, using the vouchers. The presumption was that this would improve nutrition. This was done as an experiment and hence some people were randomly given vouchers and others were not. When people went back and looked at it, they were astounded. People with vouchers had were worse off in nutrition. They felt that now that they have the vouchers, they are rich and no longer need to eat rice. They could eat pork, shrimps etc. They went and bought pork and shrimps and as a result their net calories went down. This is perfectly rational. These people were waiting for pleasure.”
A similar thing might play out in India as well. The money people will save on buying subsidised rice/wheat, might get channelised onto other unhealthy alternatives. But then that’s an individual decision that people might make and hence needs to be left at that.
The broader point is there hasn’t been enough discussion/debate/trials to figure out the unintended consequences of the right to food bill. One unintended consequence that is visible straight away is the rise in prices of non cereal food.
The money people save on buying rice/wheat can get channelised into buying fruit, vegetable, pulses, fish, meat, eggs etc. But the production for this may not go up at the same pace leading to higher price. As The Indian Express points out “The production of fruit, vegetable, pulses, fish, meat and eggs will continue to stagnate, however, as more resources will need to be allocated to push up the production of foodgrain. Instead of land, labour, capital, fertilisers and infrastructure being devoted towards meeting the needs of the population as determined by households that choose what they wish to eat, the country will be diverting resources to producing what the state decides the population must consume.”
As the government offers higher MSPs on rice and wheat, the farmers are more likely to produce that than non cereal food. This for the simple reason that the MSP is set in advance and it gives the farmer a good idea of how much he should expect to earn when he sells his produce a few months later. The same is not true for something like pulses where the government does set an MSP, but does not have the required infrastructure for procurement.
The “nutrition” problem will also continue. As Howarth Bouis , director of HarvestPlus, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, pointed out in a recent interview to Mint “If you look at all the other food groups such as fruits, vegetables, lentils, and animal products other than milk, you will find a steady increase in prices over the past 40 years. So it has become more difficult for the poor to afford food that is dense in minerals and vitamins. That probably explains the poor nutritional outcomes .” The right to food security will ensure that the poor will find it even more difficult to buy non cereal food which is high on nutrition as it becomes more expensive.
The nutrient deficit of India will continue to remain unaddressed. The right to food security works with the assumption that most of India’s poor may not have access to even the most basic food. That is really not correct as the government’s own data shows. As The Mint points out in a recent news report “Apart from the extremely poor, who form a small fraction of the population, nearly everyone else can afford the rice and wheat they require… A February report of the National Sample Survey Office shows the proportion of people not getting two square meals a day dropped to about 1% in rural India and 0.4% in urban India in 2009-10. Interestingly, the average cereal consumption of families who reported that they went hungry in some months of the year (in the month preceding the survey) was roughly equal to the average cereal consumption of those who reported receiving adequate meals throughout the year. The stark difference across income-classes lies in the level of spending on non-cereal food items, the survey points out.”
So what India needs to eat is more of eggs, vegetables and fruits, and not rice and wheat, as the government seems to have decided to. “Most of the poor can afford as much of rice, or wheat, as they can eat. And if you look at consumption patterns of these items across income groups, it does not change very much. The huge difference between low-income and high-income groups is in the consumption of non-staple foods—fruits, vegetables and pulses. I think that’s what is limiting better nutrition, not just in India but in much of the developing world,” Bouis told Mint.
What all this means is that the right to food security will drive up food prices higher than what they already are. Hence, food inflation will continue to remain high, which in turn will push up consumer price inflation as well. The right to food security will not only hurt those it is intended to benefit, but it will also hurt the tax paying salaried middle class, as they will continue to face higher prices on food.
The passing of right to food also signals that the Congress led UPA government remains committed to higher expenditure, without really figuring out where the revenue to finance that expenditure is going to come from. In simple English that means the government is going to continue to borrow more. Banks will thus have a lower pool of savings to borrow from, which means higher interest rates and higher EMIs will continue. Now who does this hurt the most? The tax paying middle class again.
Estimates made by Global Financial Integrity suggest that between 2001 and 2010, nearly $123 billion of illicit financial flows went out of India. This means around $12 billion per year on an average. At current conversion rate of one dollar being worth around Rs 54, this is around Rs 65,000 crore per year. So Rs 65,000 crore of black money is leaving the country every year. The black money being generated within the country would be many times over.
Of course people who have this black money are better placed to bear inflation because they don’t pay tax. That is clearly not the case with the salaried middle class, who pay tax and also have to bear higher food inflation. The government should be looking at ways of taxing this black money.
Over and above this agricultural income in this country continues to remain untaxed. This is totally bizarre. As Andy Mukherjee of Reuters Breaking Views writes in a slightly different context “No government today can muster the political courage to tax the incomes of even very large farmers. But to keep the section of the economy that accounts for 60 percent of employment out of tax undermines the system’s legitimacy…It’s ironic that villagers should have political representation without taxation, while the urban middle class finds itself heavily taxed but politically alienated.”
Taxing agricultural income remains out of question. Meanwhile, the salaried tax paying middle class will continue to be screwed.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on March 20, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
Buried somewhere in the Reserve Bank of India‘s first quarter review of monetary policy released yesterday is the following paragraph:
The stickiness in inflation, despite the significant growth slowdown, was largely on account of high primary food inflation, which was in double-digits during Q1 of 2012-13 due to an unusual spike in vegetable prices and sustained high inflation in protein items.
In simple English what this means is that despite economic growth slowing down inflation continued to remain high because of high food inflation. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has not seen the last of food inflation and there are several reasons why food inflation will continue to remain high in the days to come.
Below average rainfall: The immediate reason for the food prices continuing to remain is the below average rainfall this monsoon season. As the RBI said in the first quarter review of monetary policy:
During the ongoing monsoon season, rainfall up to July 25, 2012 was 22 per cent below its long period average (LPA). The Reserve Bank’s production weighted rainfall index (PWRI) showed an even higher deficit of 24 per cent. Further, the distribution of rainfall was very uneven, with the North-West region registering the highest deficit of about 39 per cent of LPA. If the rainfall deficiency persists, agricultural production could be adversely impacted.
The availability of water can make a huge difference to the agricultural output in India. Areas fed by canals form only around 40% of the total arable land in India. The remaining 60% are dependent on rains. With deficient rains this year the current khareef crop is likely to be impacted with production not being enough to meet demand. This will lead to food prices going up in the days to come.
Rural India is eating better: The various social schemes being run by the current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government have put more money into the hands of rural India. The income of rural India has more than doubled in the last five years. One thing that seems to have happened because of this is that people are eating better than before. Economists are of the opinion that as income of people rises above the subsistence level of $1000 per year, a substantial portion of the new money is spent on food. People eat more and better quality food. At the same time they also move from cereal based diets to more protein based diets. In major parts of the world this means that people start consuming more meat. But India has a lot of vegetarians and hence consumption of other high protein food items like dal, milk and other dairy based products has gone up, pushing their prices up. This is likely to continue in the months and years to come given the social commitment of the current UPA government. If the proposed Right to Food Act goes through you could see a further increase in food prices.
The Japan syndrome: As a densely populated country industrialises, the area under agriculture tends to go down. This phenomenon was first observed in Japan, and has since then been observed in South Korea, Taiwan, and very recently China. As Lester R Brown points out in Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures “First, as a country industrialises and modernises cropland is used for industrial and residential development. As automobile ownership spreads, the construction of roads, highways, and parking lots…takes valuable land away from agriculture…. Secondly as rapid industrialisation pulls labour out of the countryside, it often leads to less double cropping, a practice that depends on quickly harvesting one grain crop once its ripe and immediately preparing the seedbed for the next crop…Third, as incomes rise, diets diversify, generating demand for more fruits and vegetables. This in turn leads farmers to shift land from grain to these more profitable high-value crops.”
This is a long term phenomenon which is clearly playing out in India right now. Just drive around towards the outer limits of the city you live in and you will realize that what was once agricultural land has been taken over to build malls, apartments, offices etc. This leaves less area to grow vegetables, cereals and other crops, pushing up their prices in turn. Depleting aquifers: A huge amount of increase in the irrigation of crops across the gangetic plane, India’s agricultural heartland have substantially depleted the aquifers or the underground water tables. As a report by DWS Investments points out “Dramatic increases in the irrigation of crops across northern India have substantially depleted the region’s groundwater. Between April 2002 and August 2008, aquifers lost a total of more than 54 cubic kilometers per year. That decrease in groundwater is even more than double the capacity of India’s largest reservoir.”
While this data is around four years old there is no reason to believe that the situation could have improved in the last four years. It could only have got worse. This is something that Brown agrees with in his book Outgrowing the Earth. He writes “the extensive overpumping of aquifers in India will deprive farmers of irrigation water and will also reduce grain production”.
Climate change also threatens food security: As the following table points out Indian agriculture has very low productivity when it comes to other parts of the world. Even Bangladesh does better than us when it comes to producing rice.
Comparing productivity of Indian agriculture with the world (kg/ha)
Country Paddy Country Wheat Country Maize
World 4,223 World 2,829 World 5,010
Bangladesh 4,012 China 4,608 Agentina 7,666
Brazil 3,826 Egypt 6,478 Canada 8,511
China 6,422 France 6,256 China 5,151
India 3,303 India 2,704 India 2,440
Indonesia 4,705 Italy 3,568 Italy 9,144
Japan 6,511 Spain 3,470 Turkey 6,838
USA 8,092 United Kingdom0 7,225 USA 9,458
Source: Agriculture Statistics at a Glance /Kotak GameChanger Report
Even this production is threatened now because of rising global temperature which beyond a certain point tends to reduce the amount of crop produced. As Lester Brown told me in an interview I did for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) a few years back “For each degree celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season, farmers can expect a 10% decline in wheat, rice, and corn yields. Since 1970, the earth’s average surface temperature has increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius, or roughly 1 degree Fahrenheit.”
As the earth’s temperature rises it has led to glaciers melting. “Nowhere is this of more concern than in Asia. It is the ice melt from glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau that sustain the major rivers of India and China, and the irrigation systems that depend on them, during the dry season. In Asia, both wheat and rice fields depend on this water. China is the world’s leading wheat producer. India is No 2 (The US is third.) These two countries also dominate the world rice harvest. Whatever happens to the wheat and rice harvests in these two population giants will affect food prices everywhere. Indeed, the projected melting of the glaciers on which these two countries depend presents the most massive threat to food security humanity has ever faced,” said Brown.
Cars and people are competing for grains: As the price of oil keeps going up, the world has started to look for alternate sources of fuel to run cars and other forms of transport around the world. One such fuel is ethanol which is made from corn and sugarcane in different parts of the world. In Brazil, a lot of cars run on ethanol, which is produced using sugarcane. So if oil prices go up, ethanol becomes more viable as an alternate fuel. And this pushes up the price of ethanol input, i.e. sugarcane. With lesser sugarcane available to produce sugar, the price of sugar also goes up. The United States uses corn to make ethanol. So oil prices going up leads to corn prices going up as well. As Brown put it “If the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will simply move the commodity into the energy economy. If the price of oil jumps to $100 a barrel, the price of grain will follow it upward. If oil goes to $200, grain will follow. From an agricultural vantage point, the world’s appetite for crop-based fuels is insatiable. The grain required to fill an SUV’s 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. If the entire US grain harvest were to be converted to ethanol, it would satisfy at most 18% of US auto fuel needs.”
Given these reasons the food prices are likely to remain high in the months and years to come. And the Reserve Bank of India can fiddle around with the interest rates as much as it wants to, but there is no way it can control food prices.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 2,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/economy/why-food-prices-will-continue-to-rise-in-the-coming-years-400532.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])