Primary lessons
One for the road

Making a hash of it

Modi government’s potato policy will prove counter-productive.

Potatoes and onions have one common peculiarity. They can be stored easily, but not for prolonged periods of time — five to six months at most. Potatoes and onions have one common peculiarity. They can be stored easily, but not for prolonged periods of time — five to six months at most. (Source: PTI)

Onions and potatoes take centre-stage again. Having secured a mandate based on people’s unhappiness with continuously high and painful food inflation, the government’s inability to control prices is, understandably, sending shivers down the BJP’s spine. Fulfilling the aspirations of urban voters and winning over a thoroughly exacting Delhi electorate, where re-elections are due, are essential to the BJP’s game plan to succeed. By and large, the prices of most vegetables, like tomatoes, bitter gourd, sponge gourd, green peppers etc, are lower than last year, but in an earnest bid to preempt higher food inflation, the establishment has misread the signals and generated a crisis.

Potatoes and onions have one common peculiarity. They can be stored easily, but not for prolonged periods of time — five to six months at most. Beyond that, they start to rot. This implies that the leftover stock from the last crop would have to be offloaded in the market within three months in any case. If policymakers knew this simple fact, they would have realised that there was no need to impose the Essential Commodities Act (ECA), 1955, on potatoes and onions. In any case, the existing laws provide state administrations with sufficient powers to check hoarding, should they need to or have the will to.

As a farmer, it is beyond my comprehension why the government would see fit to put export restrictions on potatoes when only one per cent of the crop is exported. Such small quantities do not distort the market. The UPA’s arbitrary import-export policy was its bane. But it seems this style of decision-making continues in the new set-up. The UPA 2 government tweaked the cotton export policy several times from 2010 onwards. As a result of this fluctuating policy, Indian cotton now sells at a discount because of the unreliability of delivery. I fear Indian potatoes are headed in the same direction.

The futures market sends signals about the expected gap between demand and supply — this indicates the need for intervention. But futures trading in potatoes is banned. If hoarding was rampant, the price of potatoes in the futures market would have been more than its spot price in anticipation of the prices to rise. But the day that the ban on fresh trades was imposed, June 18, the spot price of potatoes, at Rs 15 per kg, was higher than the futures price for July at Rs 12.50 per kg. So, cheaper potatoes could have been contracted in the futures market.

It is common knowledge that the ECA is nearly impossible to enforce due to corruption and governance issues at the lower levels of administration across states. But by some miracle, should it be successfully enforced, it will prove counterproductive. The existing produce in cold storage will be forcibly pushed into the market in a month’s time, and consumption of potatoes will rise substantially because of the artificially created low prices. Old stocks will be likely to run out faster, before the arrival of the new crop in December. The gap of a few months before the new crop is harvested and arrives in markets could see prices spiralling out of control.
Interestingly, after the government fixed a minimum export price (MEP) of Rs 27 per kg and banned futures trading for potatoes, prices actually went up because it sent the wrong signal to market players that they are in short supply. On similar lines, to mitigate farm distress, it is only fair to expect the bare minimum MSP to be Rs 9 per kg, which, incidentally, is a whopping three times less than the MEP. As the saying goes, “by their fruits ye shall know them”. An idea is only as good as its results.

The government panicked because potato prices rose 25 per cent over three months. But this annual feature does not warrant overreaction. Prices and costs at the time of fresh arrivals will always be lower than three months later when cold storage charges, moisture losses, rot and miscellaneous extras add up.

Experience shows that potatoes are in short supply about only once every five years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may remember the gluts of 2011 and 2009, when farmers were dumping potatoes on the road because prices had crashed to Re 1 per kg in Deesa and Vijapur in Gujarat and elsewhere in Punjab. But no hullabaloo was created during those pitiful times to “save the farmer” or demand an MSP.
Punjab farmers will suffer the most because even though Pakistan is allowing duty-free imports of Indian potatoes after many years, exports will not materialise due to the MEP restrictions. These export restrictions are like a tax on Indian farmers. The Punjab chief minister has reportedly asked the Central government to lift the MEP restrictions. But instead, the Centre put potatoes on the essential commodities list.

If the monsoons are delayed, the shortage will get exacerbated and market availability will be affected October onwards. But should they fail, the government will be forced to import — a solution advocated incessantly by agricultural economists to control inflation. The continued political expedience of sacrificing the farmer is worrisome. Modi cannot be blamed for the challenges he has inherited, but he must solve the riddle before it is too late.

Why things have come to such a pass is not difficult to understand. There’s a disconnect between the government and the governed. The finance minister called for a meeting of agriculture sector experts. North Block officials also called farmer organisations for consultations. They did not ask the agriculture ministry for names of farmer organisations to call but chose conveniently, a practice followed by the UPA, too. I believe that the BJP can deliver but not if it follows in the UPA’s footsteps.

The writer is chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj express@expressindia.com

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