Why Farmers Are Protesting Against Laws Which Will ‘Supposedly’ Help Them

Over the last week many of you have asked me to write on this particular topic. One gentleman even suggested on Twitter, perhaps sarcastically, that I was slacking. (I guess after this 3,800 word piece, he will clearly not say that).

Well, I wasn’t slacking. This is a complicated topic with multiple issues and because of that I was trying to read as much as I could, before offering my views on the issue. (Also, I might be writing more on the issue in the days to come).

What do the Bills which have been passed by the Parliament seek to achieve?

Yesterday, the Rajya Sabha passed two out of the three Bills being referred to as the Farm Bills. These two Bills are the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020.

The Lok Sabha had already passed these Bills. There was some ruckus in the Rajya Sabha where the Bill was passed through a voice vote.

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, allows the farmers to sell their produce outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) regulated markets. The APMCs are government controlled marketing yards or mandis.

This law allows farmers to sell their produce to cold storages, warehouses, processing plants or even directly to the end consumer (you and I, restaurants, hotels etc.) The state government is not allowed from levying any market fee, cess or any other levy in these other market places (or trade areas). In short, anything that the state government can do is limited to the physical area of the APMCs. The Bill allows intra-state trade and inter-state trade.

So, the farmers clearly have more choice on who they want to sell. But they are still unhappy about it? Why? This is a question that will get answered in the piece.

Now let’s take a look at the other Bill.  The idea behind Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, is essentially to create a framework for contract farming. This needs an agreement between the farmer and a buyer, before the production happens.

Of course, this hasn’t gone down well with the farmers either.

Why are the farmers protesting?

The passage of both the Bills hasn’t gone down well with the farmers. In fact, farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, had been protesting even before the Bills were passed by the Parliament. Why has that been the case? Let’s take a look pointwise.

1) As mentioned earlier, the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, are the ones, primarily protesting. Hence, farmers across the country are not protesting against these Bills.

The farmers of these states are primarily protesting because the government procurement infrastructure in these areas is very good. This is primarily because the Green Revolution of the 1960s started here. In order to encourage farmers to adopt a new variety of wheat, the government offered procurement through the Food Corporation of India and a minimum support price (MSP) to farmers, which was declared before every agriculture season. Since then the system has evolved and the government sets an MSP on 23 agricultural crops, though it primarily buys only rice and wheat. In the recent years, it has bought some pulses and oilseeds as well.

The fear among farmers is that the next step in the agriculture reform process will be the doing away of government procurement process as well as the MSP. This is going to primarily hurt the farmers from Punjab and Haryana, who benefit tremendously from this.

2) The farmers who benefit from the government procurement process and MSP are medium and large farmers. As the document titled Price Policy for Rabi  Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21, published by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices 2020-21, which is a part of the Agriculture Ministry points out:

“As indicated by data received from some states, medium and large farmers occupy a major share in total procurement in the State and share of small and marginal farmers, though improved during last few years, remain low.”

Hence, it’s the bigger farmers who are protesting against the passage of these Bills. (It is important to make this distinction because the media is largely using the word farmers).

The government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have assured that there are no plans to do away with government procurement or the MSP policy for that matter. The trouble is the protestors don’t seem to be buying these assurances and there is good reason for the same.

3) Why are the big farmers not buying the government’s assurances? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that it is but natural that the next step in the process of reforming agriculture is reforming government procurement and the MSP policy.

As NITI Aayog’s occasional paper titled Raising Agricultural Productivity and Making Farming Remunerative for Farmers published in December 2015, points out:

“There is a need for reorientation of price policy if it is to serve the basic goal of remunerative prices for farmers. This goal cannot be achieved through procurement backed MSP since it is neither feasible nor desirable for the government to buy each commodity in each market in all region.”

This paper essentially had the philosophical underpinnings on which both the Bills we have been talking about are based. Also, if the government purchases and the MSP are done away with, there will be further danger of free power, fertiliser subsidy etc., being done away with as well.

4) The MSP policy has led to excess production and excess procurement of rice and wheat by the government over the years. As of September 2020, the Food Corporation of India had 700.27 lakh tonnes of rice and wheat. As per the stocking norms for food grains, FCI needs to have an operational and strategic reserve of 411.2 lakh tonnes as of July and 307.70 lakh tonnes as of October. These massive stocks of rice and wheat are despite the government deciding to distribute a lot of rice and wheat for free to bring down the negative impact of the covid pandemic.

It has also led to farmers growing rice and wheat at the cost of other agricultural crops. As the NITI Aayog research paper referred to earlier points out: “Per capita intake and availability of pulses in the country has declined to two third since early 1960s. During the 50 years between 1964-65 and 2014-15, per capita production of pulses declined from 25 kg to 13.6 kg.”

Now, you cannot fault farmers for doing this. If they are incentivised to grow something, with a regular buyer available in the form of the government, they are bound to do that. Why take a risk, when a safer option where the government increases the price of rice and wheat every year, and buys what is produced, is available.

In fact, it is safe to say that if the government procurement is lowered (even without the MSP being done away with), the price of rice and wheat will fall. If private markets are established, it will fall even faster. This is something that the big farmers of Punjab and Haryana, don’t want, hence, the protests. It is worth remembering here that the marginal and small farmers, who own land of less than two hectares, are largely consumers of food, and food inflation tends to hurt them.

5) Let’s look at how strong the incentives of big farmers of Punjab and Haryana are. As the document titled Price Policy for Kharif Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21 points out:

“For example, more than 95 percent paddy farmers in Punjab and about 70 percent farmers in Haryana are covered under procurement operations while in other major rice producing States like Uttar Pradesh (3.6%), West Bengal (7.3%) Odisha (20.6%) and Bihar (1.7%), very small number of rice farmers benefit from procurement operations.”

In total, the procurement system reaches around 11.8% of the rice farmers. This explains by the protests are limited largely to Punjab and Haryana.

6)  Punjabis themselves eat very little rice. But the solid procurement system in place ensures that the Punjabi farmers grow a lot of rice.

Procurement of rice in major producing states 2018-19.


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

As can be seen from the above chart nearly 89% of the rice produced by the farmers in Punjab is procured by the government. In Haryana, it is 85%. Clearly, the farmers in Punjab and Haryana have a huge incentive in growing rice and doing away with price risk.

The government procurement system and the MSP have essentially ensured that semi-arid areas like Punjab and Haryana, grow rice, a crop which needs a lot of water. And this has created its own set of problems. “Continuous adoption of rice-wheat cropping system in North-Western plains of Punjab, Haryana and West Uttar Pradesh has resulted in depletion of ground water and deterioration of soil quality, posing a serious threat to its sustainability.” It also creates the problem of stubble burning during the winter months.

7) How do things look for wheat, the other crop procured majorly by the government? Take a look at the following table.

Statewise procurement of wheat.


Source: Price Policy for Rabi Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21.

As can be seen from the above table Punjab and Haryana are again the major beneficiaries when it comes to procurement of wheat. Uttar Pradesh is the biggest producer of wheat but only around 11-12% of its production gets procured by the government.

As the NITI Aayog paper referred to earlier points out: “The pricing policy has also discriminated against eastern states where procurement at the MSP is minimal or non-existent. With part of the demand in these states satisfied by subsidised PDS sales of the grain procured in other states, prices of wheat and rice in these states end up below what they would be in the absence of price interventions of the government. The price policy has thus also created a regional bias in crop pattern as well as incomes of farmers.” The fact that inequality has gone on for years is disturbing. But this does not mean that the government should procure more rice and wheat from these states as well.

8) The other big fear among farmers, those representing them and many economists, is that large corporates will take over contract farming. The politicians suddenly want farmers to trust corporates and the market process, after spending decades abusing them. This is not going to happen suddenly, especially in an environment where there is big fear of large corporates taking over many other areas of business. All this is happening precisely at a time when the government has banned the export of onions. The messaging just isn’t right, given that if the government trusted the market process, it wouldn’t have banned the export of onions.

9) Another reason that farmers don’t trust corporates is the rise in their input costs. As the document titled Price Policy for Rabi Season points out: “The increase in cost of production was mainly driven by rise in farm input costs such as human labour, machinery, seeds, fertilisers, fuel, etc.” The belief is that this rise in prices is primarily because of the increasing corporatisation of the agri-input sector.

To conclude this section, the government procurement and the MSP where introduced in a certain time when India didn’t produce enough food grains to feed itself. These are policies of a bygone era and help only big farmers in certain states, and hence, they are the ones protesting, despite the assurances by the government.

Will the government be able to do away with procurement and MSP?

This is a tricky question. The procurement and the MSP system are one side of the equation, the supply side. On the demand side, the government sells the rice and wheat thus procured at heavily subsidised prices under the aegis of the Food Security Act, through lakhs of ration shops under the public distribution system.

So, while the big farmers of Punjab and Haryana might feel that the government will do away with procurement and MSP, it is not possible at one go. What is possible is that the government can cut down on procurement, in order to ensure that FCI does not have to maintain excess stocks like it has over the last few years.

The food subsidy system is a system which has been in place and which is much more complicated and much more spread across the country, than just the big-farmers of Punjab and Haryana. Also, with the covid pandemic, the importance of the food security system has clearly come to light. Actually, only once the government does away with the food security system can it do away with MSP and procurement. This is too big a challenge for any government.

Theoretically, it’s possible to do this and give cash handouts to people so that they can buy rice and wheat, but the political repercussions of doing away with food security the way it currently exists, is not something any government will be able to handle. It’s too big a risk.

This problem of  government assuming something and farmers believing the opposite, can only be solved if the two sides talk it out. But that is unlikely to happen, given that the Bills have already been passed.

Reform by stealth

Like has been the case with economic reforms in India in the past, this time was no different as well. The government resorted to reform by stealth and aggressively pushed the Bills through the Parliament, without either talking to the Opposition parties or farmer organisations.

This has led to the firm farmer belief that MSP and government procurement will go in the next round of reform. If the government had tried to talk to the farmers before pushing through the Bills that might perhaps have helped.

Secondly, if contract farming and trade markets other than APMC have to pick up, the state governments need to be on board as well. No corporate or businessman is going to attempt contract farming or setting up trade markets where agricultural produce can be sold by farmers, unless the state government is on board as well.

Hence, some talking would have helped. But then that’s not this government’s style.

My views

Let’s take a look pointwise.

1) There are multiple problems with the way the APMC markets across the country have been functioning. As the Sixty Second Report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture (2018-19), stated, highlighting some of the problems:

a) “Market Committees are reportedly democratic institution but in fact… [the] Committee is dominated by politicians and traders not by farmers as required.”

b) “The provisions of the APMC Acts are not implemented in their true sense. For example, market fee and commission charges are legally to be levied on traders, however, same is collected from farmers by deducting the amount from farmers’ net proceed.”

c) “Market fee is collected in some States even without actual trade-transaction has taken place and simply on landing the commodity at processing units. While in other States trade transaction outside the market yard is illegal.”

Once we take this into account, there is a clearly problem with the way APMCs function. Also, they restrict competition and tend to assume that the farmers are not smart enough to do their own thing (something that many politicians have made a career of). In that sense the freedom that these Bills provide the farmer are great.

Having said that, the absence of any regulation in non-APMC trade markets is not a good sign.

2) Are the farmers going to benefit almost overnight, as is being projected on the social media in particular and media in general? The simple answer is no. It needs to be pointed out here that as per the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, 12.56 crore or 86.2% of India’s operational holdings are small and marginal that is less than two acres in size.

Hence, most of the farmers really don’t produce enough to be able to deal with any marketing system, the old one or the new one, in a direct profitable way. For such small farmers to be able to benefit and get a better price for their produce without selling to a middleman, all kinds of other infrastructure is needed. These include everything from more cold storages to improved roads connecting villages to the newer markets that come up, power supply which can be relied upon (so that a cold storage can function like one) and traders who compete to get their produce.

All of this is very important if farmers are to get a better price for their produce. A survey carried out by the Reserve Bank of India and published in the central bank’s October 2019 bulletin found:

“The survey findings revealed that farmers’ average share in retail prices vary across crops between a range of 28 per cent and 78 per cent [across 14 crops]. The traders’ and retailers’ mark-ups were generally found to be higher for perishables than nonperishables.” The Survey also found that “retailers’ margins were generally higher than the traders’ margins in consumption centres across commodities, possibly due to significant product loss at the retail stage, particularly for perishables.”

In fact, the state of Bihar did away with the APMC Act in 2006 and didn’t get anywhere near higher incomes for farmers, given that the basic infrastructure to get market transactions going was not available.

This is why all the other infrastructure mentioned earlier becomes important. And it can’t be achieved without the active participation of the state governments. Hence, communication between the central government and the state governments on this issue is very important. And that hasn’t happened. Also, as usual, the central government hasn’t gone into the details. It has talked about how the farmers will benefit and is driving home that narrative aggressively, without really talking about the all the practical issues that will keep cropping up. (Remember demonetisation? Remember GST? Why does this feel like déjà vu?).

3) It is worth remembering that arthiyas (commission agents) who buy produce from farmers at APMCs, are locally influential people. Hence, assuming that parallel systems of buying and selling in the form of new trade markets, will come up automatically, is rather stupid. It is worth remembering that many arthiyas are themselves big farmers and can ensure that the system continues to work as it is. They might just move out of APMCs to avoid paying levies (which are very high especially in states of Punjab and Haryana at 8.5% and 6.5%, respectively). Everything else might continue to be the same. This depends on whether creation of new infrastructure is worth not paying the levy.

This is why, at the cost of repetition, proper healthy communication between state governments and the central government becomes very important. Also, it will be interesting to see whether the central government continues to procure rice and wheat through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) at the APMC mandis in Punjab and Haryana, using arthiyas and paying levies amounting to 6.5-8.5%? Or will it choose to move out, thereby hurting the revenue stream of the state governments? (Did someone say cooperative federalism?)

4) It is being assumed that buyers who currently buy from big commission agents, will start buying directly from farmers and let go of the middleman. There is a reason why these buyers buy from agents. It is convenient for them to do so. Do they want to take on the headache of building a new system right from scratch? Is it worth their time and money?

These are questions for which answers will become clearer in the days to come. But prima facie given the abysmal ease of doing business in most states, I see no reason why the buyers won’t continue buying from the agents, instead of having to deal with many farmers. As mentioned earlier, a bulk of India’s farmers are too small to benefit from any market- oriented system, unless they organise themselves in the forms of cooperatives and farmers-producer organisations.

Also, if governments really want to help these small and marginal farmers, they need to reform the change in land usage norms, and let farmers who want to sell their land be able to sell it anyone else and not just other farmers.

5) There is great fear of Big Business taking over agriculture. As per the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, the number of medium and large operational holdings is at 63.16 lakh (A medium sized operational holding has an area of 4 hectares to up to less than 10 hectares. And a large sized operational holding has an area of 10 hectares or more). These are huge numbers we are looking at. Just imagine the kind of scale needed to deal with these many number of farmers. If just take a look at large operational holdings, they are at 8.31 lakh. Hence, it’s not going to be easy for any corporate to do anything without involving middlemen.

If businesses just concentrated on states which have a higher proportion of medium and large operational holdings they are looking at Punjab (33.21% of the total operational holdings), Rajasthan (19.47% of the total operational holdings) and Haryana (14.35%). Not surprisingly, farmers of Punjab and Haryana are worried. They would rather deal with the known devil, the government, who, they can always vote out in the next election. But how do you vote out a corporate?

To conclude, the central government clearly hasn’t gone into the details of what will it take to really make the life of an average farmer better. As usual it is only interested in selling the narrative that the passage of these Farm Bills will ensure that farmers get a better price for what they produce. (Remember, the 50% higher MSP story they tried selling sometime back?)

When it comes to the opposition parties, they have managed to get low-hanging fruit to put the government on the mat after a while, and not surprisingly, they are cashing in on that.

Meanwhile, nobody is really worried about the farmer.

I would like to thank Chintan Patel for research assistance.

The ‘convoluted’ economics of pulses in India.

Toor_Dal_Tur_dal

The kharif crop sowing season is on. The ministry of agriculture declares regular data on this front every week. The latest data suggests that as on June 23rd 2017, the area sown under pulses stood at 5.97 lakh hectares. By the same time last year, the area sown under pulses had stood 9.01 lakh hectares. Hence, this year has seen a drop of close to 34 per cent, as far as area sown under pulses is concerned. The question is why? While deciding on how much area to allocate to a particular crop, farmers basically look at the price they received for it, the last time they produced and sold it. On that front, the record of pulses hasn’t looked good in the recent past. Look at Figure 1.

Figure 1: 

lefttop00Figure 1 plots out the inflation and recent deflation (a fall in prices) of pulses over the last few years. In December 2015, the price of pulses had gone up by 49 per cent in comparison to December 2014. This rate of price rise fell in the months to come, but remained in and around 30 per cent. While this made pulses unaffordable for the common man, the indication it sent out to farmers was to plant more pulses because that is where money was to be made. Take a look at Figure 2. It plots the total production of pulses over the years.

Figure 2: 

In 2016-2017, the production of pulses went up by 37 per cent to 22.4 million tonnes. This was the highest production of pulses in India ever. The farmers were expecting a good price for it, but what they got was exactly the opposite. The price of pulses crashed. Take a look at Table 1. It has the details of the prices received for different kind of pulses across different mandis in India.

Table 1: Price Movement for major pulses in Major Domestic Markets (in Rs/gtl) 

As is clear from Table 1, the price of different kinds of pulses except for chickpeas, has fallen in comparison to the last year. Tur dal or pigeon pea has been hit in particular, with prices in March 2017, falling by close to 45 per cent across different mandis.

This is not surprising given that Tur dal production went through the roof this year. Take a look at Figure 3, which plots the production of Tur dal over the years.

Figure 3: 

As can be seen from Figure 4, the production of tur dal in 2016-2017 jumped by close to 80 per cent to 4.6 million tonnes. This massive increase in production was primarily in response to a massive jump in price in 2015-2016. With the massive increase in supply in 2016-2017, the prices of tur in particular, and pulses in general, have crashed.

The central government declares the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for 23 crops, including rice and wheat. While the government declares the MSP for 23 crops, it procures only rice and wheat directly from the farmers, using the Food Corporation of India as well as state procurement agencies. Recently, the government has started to procure pulses as well, in the hopes of being able to offer a reasonable price to farmers.

But given the poor procurement mechanism in place, the price of pulses in many places, fell below its MSP. As a February 2017 report in The Times of India points out in the context of the state: “The MSP for tur dal is Rs 5,050 per quintal, but farmers are getting only Rs 4,200-4,300 per quintal.”

Some sort of stability could have been provided to these falling prices, if the government through its various agencies would have bought pulses at the MSPs it had announced. But given the recent start in procurement of pulses, the government agencies are not in a position to procure much. In 2016-2017, the total procurement of pulses by various government agencies stood at 1.1 million tonnes. This amounted to around 4.9 per cent of the total production of pulses. As the Price Policy for Kharif Crops-The Marketing Season 2017-18 points out: “Procurement of pulses is about 1.1 million tonnes as on 21.03.2017, much higher than earlier years but market prices are still ruling below MSP in some states. Therefore, there is a need for effective involvement of states in procurement of pulses. However, infrastructure of NAFED and SFAC [two of the agencies that procure pulses] needs to be strengthened with administrative and financial support to take up procurement of pulses on a substantial scale throughout the country.”

NAFED has had multiple problems regarding procurement of pulses, from a shortage of gunny bags, to running out of space due to a bumper crop. Having said this, procurement by the government isn’t really a long-term solution. What is needed is the development of a proper market system, where farmers can get the best prices for their crops. This of course, is easier said than done. While, Indian politicians like to flirt with market economics in many areas, the moment it comes to agriculture, they tend to clamp up.

Also, what has not helped is the fact that imports of pulses have continued unabated. Between April 2016 and January 2017, a total of 6.1 million tonnes of pulses had been imported. In 2015-2016, a total of 5.8 million tonnes of pulses had been imported. Hence, more pulses were imported in the first nine months of 2016-2017 than the year before that. The trouble was that in 2016-2017 along with a jump in imports, the production of pulses also went up by 37 per cent. If the import of a commodity is allowed, it’s export should be allowed as well.

While this brought down the price of pulses in the short-term, it sent out the wrong economic signals to farmers who had planted pulses in 2016-2017. And given this, the current financial year has seen the area sown for pulses fall dramatically by more than a one-third, in response to the recent crash in the price of pulses. As far as the plantation of pulses in kharif season goes, there is still some time to go and these numbers can change.

But if they don’t, then the total production of pulses through 2017-2018, will be lower than the bumper crop in 2016-2017. This, of course, will send the prices of pulses up all over again. Indeed, this is worrying for a nation where the consumption of protein is going up. Pulses remain the best source of protein for the vegetarian part of the population.

This pretty much summarises the way the ‘convoluted’ economics of pulses works in India.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on June 27, 2017

The ‘convoluted’ economics of pulses in India.

Toor_Dal_Tur_dal

The kharif crop sowing season is on. The ministry of agriculture declares regular data on this front every week. The latest data suggests that as on June 23rd 2017, the area sown under pulses stood at 5.97 lakh hectares. By the same time last year, the area sown under pulses had stood 9.01 lakh hectares. Hence, this year has seen a drop of close to 34 per cent, as far as area sown under pulses is concerned. The question is why? While deciding on how much area to allocate to a particular crop, farmers basically look at the price they received for it, the last time they produced and sold it. On that front, the record of pulses hasn’t looked good in the recent past. Look at Figure 1.

Figure 1: 

lefttop00Figure 1 plots out the inflation and recent deflation (a fall in prices) of pulses over the last few years. In December 2015, the price of pulses had gone up by 49 per cent in comparison to December 2014. This rate of price rise fell in the months to come, but remained in and around 30 per cent. While this made pulses unaffordable for the common man, the indication it sent out to farmers was to plant more pulses because that is where money was to be made. Take a look at Figure 2. It plots the total production of pulses over the years.

Figure 2: 

In 2016-2017, the production of pulses went up by 37 per cent to 22.4 million tonnes. This was the highest production of pulses in India ever. The farmers were expecting a good price for it, but what they got was exactly the opposite. The price of pulses crashed. Take a look at Table 1. It has the details of the prices received for different kind of pulses across different mandis in India.

Table 1: Price Movement for major pulses in Major Domestic Markets (in Rs/gtl) 

As is clear from Table 1, the price of different kinds of pulses except for chickpeas, has fallen in comparison to the last year. Tur dal or pigeon pea has been hit in particular, with prices in March 2017, falling by close to 45 per cent across different mandis.

This is not surprising given that Tur dal production went through the roof this year. Take a look at Figure 3, which plots the production of Tur dal over the years.

Figure 3: 

As can be seen from Figure 4, the production of tur dal in 2016-2017 jumped by close to 80 per cent to 4.6 million tonnes. This massive increase in production was primarily in response to a massive jump in price in 2015-2016. With the massive increase in supply in 2016-2017, the prices of tur in particular, and pulses in general, have crashed.

The central government declares the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for 23 crops, including rice and wheat. While the government declares the MSP for 23 crops, it procures only rice and wheat directly from the farmers, using the Food Corporation of India as well as state procurement agencies. Recently, the government has started to procure pulses as well, in the hopes of being able to offer a reasonable price to farmers.

But given the poor procurement mechanism in place, the price of pulses in many places, fell below its MSP. As a February 2017 report in The Times of India points out in the context of the state: “The MSP for tur dal is Rs 5,050 per quintal, but farmers are getting only Rs 4,200-4,300 per quintal.”

Some sort of stability could have been provided to these falling prices, if the government through its various agencies would have bought pulses at the MSPs it had announced. But given the recent start in procurement of pulses, the government agencies are not in a position to procure much. In 2016-2017, the total procurement of pulses by various government agencies stood at 1.1 million tonnes. This amounted to around 4.9 per cent of the total production of pulses. As the Price Policy for Kharif Crops-The Marketing Season 2017-18 points out: “Procurement of pulses is about 1.1 million tonnes as on 21.03.2017, much higher than earlier years but market prices are still ruling below MSP in some states. Therefore, there is a need for effective involvement of states in procurement of pulses. However, infrastructure of NAFED and SFAC [two of the agencies that procure pulses] needs to be strengthened with administrative and financial support to take up procurement of pulses on a substantial scale throughout the country.”

NAFED has had multiple problems regarding procurement of pulses, from a shortage of gunny bags, to running out of space due to a bumper crop. Having said this, procurement by the government isn’t really a long-term solution. What is needed is the development of a proper market system, where farmers can get the best prices for their crops. This of course, is easier said than done. While, Indian politicians like to flirt with market economics in many areas, the moment it comes to agriculture, they tend to clamp up.

Also, what has not helped is the fact that imports of pulses have continued unabated. Between April 2016 and January 2017, a total of 6.1 million tonnes of pulses had been imported. In 2015-2016, a total of 5.8 million tonnes of pulses had been imported. Hence, more pulses were imported in the first nine months of 2016-2017 than the year before that. The trouble was that in 2016-2017 along with a jump in imports, the production of pulses also went up by 37 per cent. If the import of a commodity is allowed, it’s export should be allowed as well.

While this brought down the price of pulses in the short-term, it sent out the wrong economic signals to farmers who had planted pulses in 2016-2017. And given this, the current financial year has seen the area sown for pulses fall dramatically by more than a one-third, in response to the recent crash in the price of pulses. As far as the plantation of pulses in kharif season goes, there is still some time to go and these numbers can change.

But if they don’t, then the total production of pulses through 2017-2018, will be lower than the bumper crop in 2016-2017. This, of course, will send the prices of pulses up all over again. Indeed, this is worrying for a nation where the consumption of protein is going up. Pulses remain the best source of protein for the vegetarian part of the population.

This pretty much summarises the way the ‘convoluted’ economics of pulses works in India.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on June 27, 2017

Learn from 2014: How the Modi govt can tame food prices

foodVivek Kaul

Earlier this month, the the India Meteorological Department(IMD) forecast that the monsoon will be deficient this year. It said that the monsoon will be 88% of the long-term average. This number is lower than the 93% of the long-term average number, the IMD had forecast in April, earlier this year.
The IMD also said that the probability of a deficient monsoon was as high as 66%. The nation’s weather forecaster uses rainfall data for the last 50 years to define what is normal. If the rainfall forecast for the year is between 96% and 104% of the 50 year average, then it is categorised as normal. A forecast of between 90% and 96% of the 50 year average is categorised as below-normal. And anything below 90% is categorised as deficient.
Hence, a forecast of 88% of the long-term average means that the monsoon will be deficient this year. Further, with the rainfall being forecast as likely to be deficient, the fear is that food prices will start to go up during the months to come.
Data from the World Bank suggests that only around 35.2% of agricultural land in India was irrigated in 2010. The bank defines irrigated land as “
areas purposely provided with water, including land irrigated by controlled flooding.” This number is a little dated but does tell us that a major part of Indian agriculture continues to remain dependent on rainfalls.
And if rainfalls turn out to be deficient chances are there will be an impact on agricultural production and in the process push up food prices. At least that is how things look theoretically. Nevertheless, things may not be as bad as they are being made out to be.
During 2014 monsoon season, the country as a whole received rainfall which was 88% of the long-term average. Hence, the rainfall last year was deficient. In fact, if we look at the numbers region-wise, the rainfall was around 79% of the long-term average in north-western India. States like Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh which produce a major part of food grains produced in India, come under this region.
Despite this, the impact on production was limited because these states have access to irrigation. As a recent report by Crisil Research titled
A washout monsoon forecast, we cut GDP growth by 50 bps points out: “Given their reasonably high irrigation levels, agricultural production in Punjab (98% of total area cultivated has irrigation), Haryana (85%) and Uttar Pradesh (76%) were less affected by deficient rainfall last year.”
The question is how effective will the irrigation systems be the second time around.
“Even with good irrigation cover in these states, two consecutive years of weak rainfall would bring down the effectiveness of irrigation systems…Ground water is recharged mainly through rainfall. As per IMD, rainfall deficiency in Punjab was 50% and Haryana at 56% last year. As a result, with agriculture relying more on ground water, two consecutive years of weak monsoon will have a significant impact on kharif crops. Plus reservoir storage levels in some states are alarmingly low,” Crisil Research points out. Given this, there will be some impact on agricultural production.
Hence, the government needs to act decisively and quickly to ensure that food prices do not go. As
economists Taimur Baig and Kaushik Das of Deutsche Bank Research point out in a recent research note titled RBI signals no more cut; we still see room: “In 2002 and 2004, cumulative rainfall was down 19 % and 14% respectively, but thanks to an effective undertaking by the government that saw large scale disbursement from the government’s food stocks, inflation remained under control.”
In fact, the Narendra Modi government did the same thing when it came to power in May last year.
One of the first decisions made by the government was to release 5 million tonnes of rice into the open market from the stocks maintained by the Food Corporation of India. News reports suggest that eventually only around 2 million tonnes was sold. But just the news that the government was selling was enough to contain inflation.
As Baig and Das point out: “Last year, a late start of the monsoon rains resulted in a sharp spike in food prices during July (+3.6% month on month). Food prices generally tend to be high in July, but the spike in 2014 was striking. The newly elected government responded with a number of administrative measures (open market sale of key foodgrains, crackdown on hoarders, imposing restriction on stocking limits of key vegetables etc.), which helped food prices to eventually ease from September onward.”
Also, imports will help, given that global food prices are at a six year low. As Crisil Reearch points out: “I
mporting some commodities will be useful, especially because global food prices have slumped to a six-year low following a bounteous output – international prices of oil seed prices for instance are down 24% year-on-year.”
While prices of food grains can be contained by releasing government stock into the open market, such a thing is not possible in case of vegetables, given their short shelf life. Hence, it is important that the government cracks down on hoarders, like it did last year.
As Ashok Gulati, former Chairman of the Agricultural Costs and Prices, wrote in a column inThe Financial Express: “A slew of measures were announced by the government to contain the damage from surging food inflation. It not only restricted exports of onions but also imported onions and dumped them in major onion markets at prices below import cost. It also used the stick and raided many onion traders/hoarders.”
While onions can be stored, this may not be true for most other vegetables. Also, a lot of vegetable produce goes bad before it reaches the market, hence, “lowering transportation losses will be crucial”.
Further, there will be great pressure on the government to increase the minimum support prices on agricultural crops. That is one sure fire way of pushing up food inflation.
It is worth remembering here that not many farmers benefit from the minimum support price system. The government announces the minimum support price of 24 agricultural crops, but largely buys, only two, wheat and rice, through the Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies.
The Shanta Kumar committee report points out that the total number of agricultural households who were able to sell rice paddy and wheat to the procurement agencies was 5.21 million. “The number of households comes to just 5.21 million (2.55 million paddy households during July-Dec 2012; 0.55 million paddy households during Jan-June, 2013; and 2.11 million wheat households during Jan-June 2013),” the report points out.
The figure of 5.21 million forms 5.8% of the total number of agricultural households of 90.2 million. In fact, this number is also on the higher side once one takes into account the fact that there are households that sell both paddy and wheat to the procurement agencies. Further, not all wheat and paddy is sold to procurement agencies at the minimum support price.
Once these factors are taken into account the minimum support price system doesn’t benefit many farmers and causes food inflation. Hence, it is important that the government stays away from the temptation of increasing minimum support prices by a big amount, something that it did last year as well.
To conclude, in order to control food inflation, it is important that the government do same things that it did last year.


(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on June 11, 2015

Rahul Gandhi’s latest jai kisan rhetoric doesn’t quite work

rahul gandhiRahul Gandhi 2.0 is angry-and this anger is making him take ‘potshots’ at the Narendra Modi government almost every other day. Okay, I know it is politics. And I know that he is not angry. And I know that he is trying to rediscover himself. And I know that he is trying to ensure that the party of his ancestors doesn’t become totally irrelevant in the days to come.
Rahul’s latest jibe at the Modi government came yesterday when he said in Punjab: “Does the farmer not make in India?…Your government did nothing when hailstorms destroyed their crop?”
This after he had told a farmers’ rally in New Delhi earlier this month that: “We[i.e. the Congress led UPA government] increased the MSP of wheat from Rs 540 to Rs 1400…The MSP has not changed, no benefit to farmers.”
These statements are in line with the dole based politics and economics practised by the Congress party over the years. The trouble is the country has had to pay a huge cost for this. Allow me to explain. 

The MSP is the price at which the government buys rice and wheat from the farmers, through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and other state government agencies. The MSP of rice was increased rapidly by the Congress led UPA government starting in 2007.
Between 2007 and 2014, the MSP of rice jumped up from Rs 580 per quintal to Rs 1310 per quintal, an increase of 12.34% per year. In case of wheat, the MSP started increasing from 2006 onwards. Between 2006 and 2014, the MSP of wheat jumped up from Rs 650 per quintal to Rs 1400 per quinta, an increase of around 10.1% per year.
The Table 1 shows the buffer stocks and the strategic reserves that the FCI needs to maintain at various points of time during the course of the year. 

Table 1


Now look at Table 2 which shows the stocks that FCI maintained at various points of time in 2014. A comparison of both the tables clearly tells us that FCI is stocking significantly more rice and wheat than what it is required to do. Interestingly, after the Narendra Modi led NDA government came to power, FCI has been going slow on procurement. In the earlier years the FCI was stocking even more than what it currently is. 

Table 2

As on 

Rice

Wheat

Total (in lakh tonnes)

Jan 1, 2014

146.98

280.47

427.45

April 1, 2014

202.78

178.34

381.12

July 1, 2014

212.36

398.01

610.37

Oct 1, 2014

154.22

322.63

476.85

Source: www.fciweb.nic.in


What the comparison of the two tables clearly tells us is that as the MSP prices have been increased, more and more rice and wheat have landed up with the government than what is required by it to run its various food programmes. In fact, the data clearly shows that before 2008 FCI bought as much rice and wheat as was required to maintain a buffer as well as a strategic reserve.
During and after 2008, the purchase of rice and wheat simply exploded. The reason for this is fairly straightforward. In the financial year 2008, the MSP of wheat was raised by 33.3%. In the financial year 2009, the MSP of rice was increased by 31.8%. And this led to farmers producing more rice and wheat in the years to come. This rice and wheat landed up with the government. FCI did not have enough space to store these grains and that explains why newspapers regularly carried pictures of rice and wheat rotting in the open, even though food inflation was rampant
The MSP policy run by the Congress led UPA government has now led to a situation where Indians farmers are producing more rice and wheat than what is required. In fact, influenced by this steady increase in the price of rice and wheat states like Punjab and Haryana, which have a water problem, are growing huge amount of rice and wheat. These crops are huge water guzzlers. Further, farmers are not growing enough of vegetables and fruits, where the prices have increased at a fast pace.
Also, when the government becomes dole oriented that leaves little money for it to do other things. At the end of the day there is only so much money that even a government has. As an editorial in The Financial Express points out: “This year, the government plans to spend around Rs 2.3 lakh crore on the food economy, including the food subsidy, and a very small fraction of this is for either crop insurance (imagine what that would do for farmers right now) or for creating irrigation facilities (imagine what that would do when the monsoon fails).”
Rahul Gandhi yesterday talked about the government not doing anything for the farmers after the hailstorms destroyed their crops. His government was in power for ten years what did they do on the crop insurance front? Why was the entire focus of the Congress led UPA government in making the farmer dependant on the government?
Interestingly, Rahul’s mother Sonia has written to the food minister Ram Vilas Paswan seeking a relaxation in the quality of wheat that the government buys from the farmers. As per the current regulations FCI does not buy wheat with a moisture content of greater than 14%. The Times of India reports Paswan as saying that: “permitting more moisture content beyond this level would mean the grain would be unfit for human consumption.” The newspaper also reports a food ministry official as saying: “There is no procurement of grains with more moisture content than the permitted limit. The procurement is being done as per the food safety standard law.”
This is a fair point. The government can’t be procuring wheat which is unfit for human consumption. Also, there is something majorly wrong in the state of the nation, where more than 65 years after independence, the main opposition leader suggests that the government buy wheat which is essentially not fit for human consumption.
This scenario would have never arisen if a crop insurance policy that covered a major section of the farmers had been in place. Who is to be blamed for this? Narendra Modi who came to power only 11 months back? Or the Congress party run by the Gandhi family which has been in power in each of the decades since independence? The answer is obvious.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Apr 30, 2015