A new public stocking policy centred on pulses, edible oils and vegetables is needed to manage unseasonal price hikes – The Indian Express

Winter is usually when tomatoes, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, capsicum, radish, peas, spinach and other greens become relatively affordable. It has to do with their plantings mostly happening during August-October. In tomatoes, these begin even earlier — from mid-June, with the monsoon rains, and up to late-September. Given that they are all 50 to 100 day crops — tomatoes take 110-120 days, but start yielding fruits from 70-80 days over 8-10 “flushes” at 4-5 day intervals — their arrivals peak over the winter, contributing to the familiar pattern of low prices at this time. Even the kharif onions planted in June-July are ready for harvesting during October-December. The same goes for the early-rabi potato that comes from the low hills of Himachal Pradesh, followed by Punjab, in November-December.
The current winter that has just set in is, however, turning out quite different. Tomatoes are retailing at upwards of Rs 60 per kg and onions at Rs 40, compared to their corresponding all-India levels of Rs 40 and Rs 30 three months ago. There’s a simple reason for this: Erratic rains. Rainfall was overall deficient during the main kharif sowing season from mid-June through August, although less so in the major vegetable-growing hubs of Maharashtra and southern India. But Maharashtra recorded excess rains in September and October, hitting production of both kharif onions and tomatoes, cultivated especially in the Nashik belt. November turned out worse, more so in the South, with the standing kharif tomato crop — be it at Madanapalle and Ramasamudram in Andhra Pradesh’s Rayalaseema region, Kolar, Chikkaballapur and Doddaballapur in Karnataka or Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu — suffering extensive damage.
The above unseasonal price spike raises concerns on two counts. The first is the impact on inflation and, more important, inflation expectations among the public. At a time when the latter already stands elevated — thanks to the sharp increases in petrol, diesel, LPG and edible oil prices over the last one year — costlier tomatoes and onions would only add to the pain points. Incidentally, consumer price inflation for vegetables was minus 19.43 per cent in October. That rate rebounding in the opposite direction, most unusually in winter, makes it all the more difficult for the Reserve Bank of India to continue with its accommodative monetary policy stance. The second concern is more long-term, relating to climate change. This is a second successive year when the peninsula has had heavy unseasonal rains in September-October, destroying the harvest-ready kharif crops. It calls for a new public stocking policy — away from rice and wheat to pulses, edible oils and vegetables that are more vulnerable to climate and global price risks. Vegetable storage can even be in dehydrated/processed form such as potato flakes, onion paste and tomato puree.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 29, 2021 under the title ‘New menu’.
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