Dec 12, 2013

Why food prices go up before the elections?

Sudden spike in onion prices for no apparent reason? 

It has come as a rude shock. After the unimaginable drubbing in the State elections, Congress party now realizes the folly it made in not controlling food inflation. Sonia Gandhi has admitted that rising inflation has been instrumental in building peoples’ anger against the ruling party.

They had taken it rather casually. Remember Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar expressing his helplessness at rising prices. He said he didn’t know why the onion prices were rising. Instead of initiating tough measures, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit had pleaded with folded hands before hoarders and black marketeers not to raise the prices at the time of elections. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had very conveniently blamed the global economic for the spirally prices in India. 

Onion prices were on boil. So were the prices of other seasonal vegetables. Ginger and Garlic selling for Rs 100 per kg, Peas at Rs 120/kg, Cauliflower at Rs 80/kg and even spinach sold at Rs 60 per kg. In fact, no other vegetable was available in the market for less than Rs 40/kg. Such high price prevailed when the monsoon rains had been more than bountiful, and there was no shortfall in production, defied all economic logic.

Let us not forget, prior to elections onion prices had remained abnormally high for several months – from July to mid-November, and had started receding just when the election process had begun. The question that needs to be therefore asked is that why inflation invariably spikes before elections? 

In early December, onion prices had crashed. According to a report in Economic Times (Dec 13, 2013) prices had halved to Rs 13/kg in three weeks in western markets. The report says that prices had stubbornly refused to come down before the assembly elections even when the supply was marginally low. If you have followed my earlier blogs, I had been saying that production fell by only 4 per cent whereas prices had gone up by 600 per cent in various markets. 

Well, the answer is not difficult to find. Over the years, the wholesale and retail trade in fruits and vegetables has monopolized the entire supply chain. Right from procuring vegetables from the farmers to making it available at your doorsteps through a network of hawkers is now an organized business. As I have been saying, these traders or arhtiyas have now turned into money bags for the political parties. No wonder, these wholesale and retail traders are affiliated to one political party or the other. For instance, the Azadpur mandi traders association in Delhi is aligned to the ruling Congress party. In Punjab, on the other hand the traders associations predominantly back the ruling SAD-BJP combine.

It is primarily for this reason that the major political parties had opposed bringing the parties under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. It is therefore a matter of convenience for both the political parties as well as the traders association. While the government remains conspicuously indifferent by not initiating any strong action against hoarding and manipulative trade practices, the trade goes for a killing. This understanding helps the political parties to meet a considerable part of the heavy electoral expenses.

Otherwise I see no reason why the vegetable prices should zoom prior to every elections. Onion prices were no exception. An investigation by a newspaper showed how the trade made a neat Rs 150-crore in just four days when prices peaked at Rs 4,500/quintal on Aug 13.  A sting operation by another TV channel exposed traders hoarding huge stocks in Madhya Pradesh. Even when the prices were touching the sky, the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) in Nasik had acknowledged that more than 2.5 lakh tonnes of onion were available with farmers in 66 villages of Lasalgaon. 

Subsequently, another expose by NewsX TV channel had shown that farmers had got as low as 0.50 paise per kg in Maharashtra while the price consumer paid was Rs 100/kg. Who benefited from such a massive manipulation? Your guess is as good as mine. 

Read it's Hindi version in Rajasthan Patrika, Dec 14, 2013.

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