Friday, November 17, 2006

The price of potatoes, November 19, 2006

I sometimes wonder why I pay Rs 10 per kilo for potatoes when the farmer receives only Rs 3. My potatoes travel some distance, I realise, from the farm to the mandi to my bania, and each person in the chain must get his cut. Still, the gap of Rs 7 seems excessive, especially when the American farmer receives Rs 4 to 5. This gap varies, of course, depending on the commodity and the season, but studies by agricultural economists show that farmers in the developed countries do get a bigger share of the consumer price because their distribution chain is shorter.

Reliance opened seven supermarkets in Hyderabad last month and my friend bought potatoes there for Rs 10 per kilo compared to Rs 18 at his bania’s shop. Another friend who works with an NGO in rural Andhra reported that farmers, who had supplied potatoes to Reliance, reported receiving higher than the mandi price. How could Reliance pay a higher price to farmers and charge a lower price to consumers? Simple--it had eliminated middlemen in the chain. Thus, we should welcome the entry of large retailers. They will bring logistics efficiencies and competition between them will lower consumer prices and raise farmers’ incomes. We shouldn’t wait too long to open this sector to foreign retailers like Walmart and Tesco lest Reliance become a monopoly.

A typical farmer harvests his crop, loads it on his bullock cart, travels30 km to the mandi, where he is forced to sell often at distress prices. Once at the mandi, he cannot return without disposing his produce. He needs the money and the trader knows it. Had he known the price before he left, he might have waited a few days. Where E chaupals have arrived farmers are happy because they get to know mandi prices via the Internet. The national commodities exchange (NCDEX) is setting up electronic tickers announcing spot and future prices in local languages at mandis and bus stands in some states. Eventually, the mobile phone will be the farmer’s best source of information. All these developments make traders unhappy.

Since his crop is perishable, the farmer needs a warehouse to enhance his staying power. NCDEX is putting up a thousand cold storages with world class grading facilities, but large retailers will also bring air-conditioned warehouses and trucks, and this will save India’s huge post harvest losses, as high as 40% for some crops. Banks ought to lend money to farmers against warehouse receipts, but the Reserve Bank refuses to allow them to hedge against future prices. This is a pity for bank loans would mitigate the farmer’s risk and improve his holding power. In fact, banks should also sell crop insurance. It is amazing that RBI should view futures trading as speculation. If the farmer knows the price of potatoes, he might plant onions instead.

Old habits of the mind die slowly. When you have been a stagnant, peasant agriculture for hundreds of years, it is difficult to grasp how Reliance, commodity exchanges, futures trading, and contract farming will quietly bring a second green revolution and liberate farmers from the clutches of the old mandi system, which is at the heart of rural political patronage. Activists oppose the entry of global retailers like Walmart on ideological grounds. Talk of farmer suicides is cheap. Politician-traders on Agricultural Marketing Committees play on these insecurities. No wonder it takes so long to reform in a democracy.

gurcharandas@vsnl.com

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