Patralekha Chatterjee | It’s time to talk about food and impact of rising prices

When food costs more, many people have no choice but to eat less or eat cheaper, lower quality food

All food stories are not necessarily about culinary fantasies. Many of them pivot around what to cook when cash is scarce and when almost everything available in the market seems to costs a lot more.

There are days when Angoori Devi, a paratha seller in Lal Gumbad Basti, eats just a chapati with salt and a little pickle “That is all I can afford. That is what poor people do,” she says. The basti is a stone’s throw from tree-lined Panchsheel Park, one of the toniest neighbourhoods in South Delhi.

Angoori Devi doesn’t know what “consumer food price inflation” means. Nor is she following the trajectory of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine -- the Western sanctions in place, their critical impact on global supply chains and their long shadow on people like her. She is not aware that retail inflation has climbed to a 17-month high in March to 6.95 per cent, driven largely by the soaring prices of everyday food items.

But she knows that her regular customers buying much less and that the rising price of vegetables, LPG cylinders, cooking oil and many other things are making everyday life extremely tough. “People are ordering less. Earlier, my lunch-time customers would ask for two to three parathas, along with a side dish of seasonal vegetables. Now, more and more people are asking for just one paratha with pickle on the side”, the 70-year-old widow tells me as she serves a ten-rupee paratha with potato stuffing.

These are hard times for people like paratha seller Angoori Devi who are grappling with soaring prices. She cannot charge more because her customers too are going through a rough time. A driver, a regular at her paratha stall, says he did not get paid during the lockdown months, has exhausted his savings and now must cut down on expenses to meet his commuting costs as fuel prices shoot up.

The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), the Central government’s free foodgrain scheme for the poor, offers five kilos of rice and wheat per person per month. It has helped stave off starvation among millions of people. The scheme, which is over and above the entitlements under the National Food Security Act, covers over 80 crore beneficiaries and has recently been extended till September this year.

A walk through some poor neighbourhoods in Indian cities, however, will tell you that nobody can live on just wheat or rice. You must have something more, even if it is just a slice of pickle or onion or a pinch of salt. When food costs more, many people have no choice but to eat less or eat cheaper, lower quality food. On top of that, it forces people to curtail many other essential expenses. Angoori Devi has had to cut back on medicines.

Her neighbours tell me they are cutting down on milk for their children, and vegetables in their daily diet because there is just not enough money. The 3,000-odd people who live in this slum typically eke out a living as daily wagers and are part of that amorphous space which sustains the Indian economy, and which is labelled the “informal sector”. There are no written contracts and earnings are erratic. The lockdown months had led to a decimation of savings. Many families are deep in debt. Young mothers worry about how they will pay school fees for the new academic year that has started.

While the poor with little savings and social protection are obviously the worst-hit, the middle and lower-middle classes are also impacted by the sharp uptick in food and fuel prices. Many have experienced job losses, a dip in their earnings and helplessly watched much of their savings evaporate. Many are eating out far less frequently and cutting down on what they see as non-essential expenditure. There is fear and uncertainty. All this will of course have a knock-on effect on the economy.

Worryingly, things are unlikely to dramatically improve in the short run.

Consumers should prepare themselves for even more pain on the price front in the coming months as many economists are warning about retail inflation becoming more broad-based and the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict continuing.

There are more troubling signs.

We must take on board climate change and our conversations about food must include the need to deal with extreme weather events. This means focusing more on forecasting such erratic and extreme weather and their likely impacts on agriculture, industry and water management. Extreme variations in weather, for example, has impacted the food platter in Kerala, with crop yields falling up to 33 per cent in recent decades, according to a study by the Centre for Water Resource Development and Management, Kozhikode.

Weather experts say the excessive heat this March has badly damaged India’s wheat crop and the yield reduction may be 15-20 per cent.

Public stocks of wheat have gone down although it is still over 2.5 times the country’s minimum operational-cum-strategic reserve requirements. Former Union finance secretary Arvind Mayaram talks about the need to use “reserves judiciously to increase availability and cool the prices”. Once the price of grain begins to moderate, the sentiment of scarcity would also ease and there will less hoarding, he adds.

Amid the gloom, there are people welcoming the situation, sensing an opportunity in wheat exports from India. There is a sharp rise in global prices as a collateral effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But for ordinary consumers, it is a different story. Food prices make up almost half the inflation basket in India and food inflation poses a daunting challenge to the country’s nascent post-Covid economic recovery. Everyone except the super-rich is feeling the squeeze. As vegetables, milk and other nutritious food go out of reach, the dietary diversity is going down further in a country where only 21 per cent of children aged between six to 23 months were fed an adequately diverse diet with four or more food groups, according to the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (2016 t0 2018). Low-cost junk food consumption appears to be on the rise. This can worsen malnutrition and impact India’s children and their future.

Economic uncertainties impact what we eat. Economic solutions are very clearly needed. But there are also climate uncertainties. And our conversations about food must factor in more frequent erratic and extreme weather and their impact on food and nutrition security.

So let us talk about food and seek meaningful solutions even as the country grapples with heat waves and hate waves.

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