Cereal offenders

Food inflation owes largely to agricultural markets being regulated by outdated laws.

The RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan, has a difficult task this week. He has to decide whether to keep interest rates constant or raise them — bearing in mind the possible taper of the US Fed's bond buying programme, a decline in industrial production and a rise in inflation. The sharp increase in consumer price-based inflation, to more than 11 per cent, has significantly added to the RBI's headache. The increase in inflation is mainly due to the nearly 15 per cent increase in food prices. This has been led by a 61 per cent increase in the price of vegetables. There are structural problems in agricultural markets, which continue to be regulated by old laws and require licences. Entry into these markets is not free and they remain uncompetitive. The rising demand for food has been met not by an increased supply but by a rise in prices instead.

The demand for vegetables, meat, milk, fish and other food items has been rising with rapid GDP growth and a rise in incomes. Rural demand has increased since 2008 as a result of the MGNREGA and rising rural wages. As income levels increase, the first change in people's consumption basket is in food items. Indian households start consuming more high protein products and fresh vegetables. This phenomenon is discernible in household consumption data. The share of cereals in total food consumption has declined as incomes have increased.

At the same time, after the global financial crisis, world commodity price inflation has decreased. Inflation in tradables, mainly manufactured goods, has been low. Consequently, households have to spend a smaller share of their income on non-food items. Relatively cheaper non-food items means that the share of disposable income available for the purchase of food has gone up. This has further increased the demand for food.

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