Shrinking Cereals, Growing Food Parks

May 4th 2010, Rahul Goswami
The first release of summary data from the 64th round of the National Sample Survey Organisation, ‘Household Consumer Expenditure in India, 2007-08’ (NSSO report 530), captures the early impact of the rising trend in food prices for rural and urban India. This period is significant in the recent history of food price rise in India, for it signals the strengthening of the factors that led to the retail food price highs of 2008, which began to be recorded around two years earlier. Several of the most important factors have to do with the rapid pace of urbanisation (most visible in the non-metro tier-1 cities) and the steady growth in the food processing and food logistics industries, which has taken place alongside the deepening of the agricultural commodity markets.

In its comment on India’s growth-malnutrition paradox, the FAO report World agriculture: towards 2030/2050 had, in 2006, stated: “To judge from survey data of food intakes, the situation has been getting worse rather than improving, at least in terms of per capita calories consumed, and this phenomenon is fairly widespread affecting all classes, rural and urban and those below and above the poverty threshold”. The report’s authors had, at the time, commented that matters in India “are getting worse in the rural areas as people have to pay more than before for things like fuel and other basic necessities of life”, and that rural incomes have not improved at anything near the rates implied by the high overall economic growth rates.

To illustrate the continuing impact of rising cereal prices on rural households in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, district per capita incomes for 2004-05 to 2009-10 are estimated for five representative districts from these states. These are districts that record a median per capita income based on data for the 2004-05 year (the last NSSO household consumption survey year) available with the Planning Commission's district domestic product tables: Bhabua in Bihar, Dhamtari in Chhattisgarh, Deoghar in Jharkhand, Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh and Jajpur in Orissa. The per capita income increases in these districts are recorded up to 2006-07, and taking the national GDP growth rate for the years following (9.7%, 9.2%, 6.7% and 7.2%) the overall finding is that statistical per capita income increases are between 36% (for Khandwa) and 47% (for Dhamtari) for the period 2005-06 to 2009-10.

In these five states, the cereals basket occupies a dominant share of monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) on food: 42% of MPCE on food and 25% of total MPCE in Bihar; 41% and 21% in Chhattisgarh; 42% and 25% in Jharkhand; 33% and 17% in Madhya Pradesh; and 42% and 24% in Orissa. The impact of a steady upward trend in the prices of cereals in these states - whose rural households spend roughly the same on food as they do on non-food needs (see Chart 1) - can be gauged from retail price data on essential food items collected by the Department of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture. This data, although the most reliable weekly series recorded in a number of centres in the country, is weakened by deficiencies (gaps in series, numerical mismatches, and so on). Even so, the patterns they provide are valuable.
Chart 1 >>

From January 2005 to January 2010, the prices of atta in Sehore and Bhopal (MP), of desi wheat in Bhopal and of maize in Patna have risen by 200%. The prices of 'kalyan' wheat (a widespread HYV cultivar) in Bhopal, Sehore and Patna (Bihar) have risen by 173% to 177%; the prices of maize in Ranchi (Jharkhand) and common quality rice in Bhubaneshwar (Orissa) have risen by 171%; the prices of desi wheat in Patna and atta in Ranchi have risen 170%; and the prices of common rice in Cuttack and in Dhanbad (Jharkhand) have risen by 169% and 164%. Over this period, the price of the available basket of cereals has risen by 157% in Cuttack, 162% in Bhubaneswar, 159% in Sehore, 174% in Bhopal, 176% in Patna, 166% in Ranchi and 152% in Dhanbad.

Erratic data posting (and possibly validation difficulties) have meant that a better understanding of the food baskets of North-East India is yet to be achieved. Even so, NSSO 530 shows the heavy reliance by the households of the North-Eastern states on cereals (rice) with the regional average consumption greater than that of the states of eastern and central India in which rice also play a major dietary role: West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand. What Chart 2 illustrates is that for those regional populations dependent on rice, the cost of this dependency is high.

This is not so for wheat in Punjab and Haryana, whose average per capita consumption quantity of the cereal is both relatively low (as a percentage of the cereal component of the food basket) and less expensive. For Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka - all three states affected by rapid urbanisation and absorbed by the race to build urban and transport infrastructure - their rural households are far less dependent on a single cereal than their counterparts in North-East, Eastern or North India. Wheat is the preferred cereal in Gujarat but accounts for no more than 40% of the total cereals purchase; rice is the preferred cereal in Karnataka but accounts for no more than 53% of the total cereals purchase; and wheat is the preferred cereal in Maharashtra but accounts for no more than 36% of the total cereals purchase.
Chart 2 >>

Food inflation is now a concern for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) which has begun to make direct causal links between per capita availability of foodgrains and high retail prices. Deepak Mohanty, executive director of RBI, in an address on 'Inflation Dynamics in India: Issues and Concerns' (March 2010) has also drawn a connection between food prices and the minimum support price (MSP) announced by the Government of India for procurement of various commodities. "The high increase in MSP since 2007-08 has given an upward bias to agricultural prices (see Table 1). Reduced availability of foodgrains also tends to keep food prices high. As per the Economic Survey 2009-10, per capita net availability per day of cereals and pulses has been lower than that observed in the previous four decades. The per capita daily availability of foodgrains was 447 grams in the 1960s and 1970s, which successively increased to 459 grams in the 1980s and 478 grams in the 1990s, but came down to 446 grams during 2000-08 and stood still lower at 436 grams in 2008."
Table 1 >>

At the same time, the Government of India has approved proposals for joint ventures and foreign collaboration (including 100% FDI) in processed food businesses (including 100% export-oriented units), and "mega food parks". According to Indian Credit Rating Agency (ICRA), the processed food market accounts for 32% of the total food market with the “most promising” sub-sectors listed as soft-drink bottling, confectionery manufacture, fishing, aquaculture, grain-milling and grain-based products, meat and poultry processing, alcoholic beverages, milk processing, tomato paste, fast-food, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, food processing, food additives and flavours. From the point of view of the major national industry associations (CII, FICCI, Assocham) the approximately 7,500 regulated mandis lack critical infrastructure, the provision of which will cost at least Rs. 12,000 crores at 2009 prices. The potential of the public-private partnership model in the foods business is seen by industry as being embodied in ventures such as Safal market in Karnataka (considered an example of wholesale market modernisation), ITC's e-Chaupal, Haryali Kisan Bazaar, Mahindra Subh Labh, Cargill Farm Gate Business and Tata Kisan Sansar.

Removed from such a view are the recurrent protests since late 2009 in a number of urban centres over food inflation, urgent signals that the increasing corporatisation of food production, procurement, movement and distribution is contributing to household food insecurity, particularly amongst the rural and urban poor. The Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Rural India (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation) explicitly stated that "over the longer period of 1993–94 to 2004–05, the states of Karnataka, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh show significant increase in the percentage of population suffering acute calorie deprivation. On the whole, it is clear that, by our measure of food insecurity, the period of economic reforms and high GDP growth has not seen an improvement in food security but deterioration for the majority of Indian states."

[The author is an agricultural livelihoods researcher with the National Agricultural Innovation Project's (NAIP) Agropedia programme.]

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