When dal, subzi become luxuries
“You are giving us figures ...figures won't fill our stomachs. Ask your wife about the reality of prices,” BN Rai, President of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, told ministers last week, according to a report in the Economic Times. The patriarchal assumption that only women know or need to know about prices of items of daily consumption is hardly surprising, coming from a leading light of the Sangh parivar. What is revealing, however, is that even a man totally politically aligned with the Modi government, indeed one who strived hard to ensure it came into being, cannot stomach the fiction of inflation having been tamed that the government has been putting out.
Official data says that at the wholesale level, not only is there no inflation, prices in April this year were actually on average 2.7 per cent below the levels of April last year. Even at the retail level, the official consumer price index (CPI) suggests, inflation was just 4.87 per cent as of April. That is, prices on average had risen less than five per cent over a year. These are the numbers Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley and apologists for this government routinely trot out to prove that Modi has delivered on the promise of curbing price rise.
The common man or woman knows from his or her lived experience that these numbers do not conform to the reality they confront on a daily basis. They don’t need official data to tell them when prices are hurting, but even the data itself shows up how the averages are concealing grim realities.
Two groups of commodities are the nub of the problem – pulses (dals) and vegetables. Even the official wholesale price index (WPI) concedes that inflation in pulses is above 15 per cent. The CPI suggests “pulses and products” are about 12.5 per cent more expensive than last year. In urban areas their prices have risen by 18.3 per cent April to April, the CPI estimates. In themselves, these would be worrying figures, but they do not even begin to reflect the true picture.
Data from the department of consumer affairs shows how much worse the situation really is. Let’s look at what’s happened to the prices of five major pulses. We have chosen here only the national capital and some capitals of states in which the BJP is in power – Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Bhopal. Elsewhere, the saffron brigade could claim that it is weak state governments run by other parties that are responsible for prices spiralling out of control. What the data shows is that prices of tur dal (arhar) have risen by 20 to 38 per cent in each of these cities between May 22 last year and May 22 this year. In the case of urad, the increase is between 22 per cent and 44 per cent. For masoor, the price rise ranges from 12 per cent to 55 per cent and for moong from 2 per cent to 53 per cent. Price rise in gram dal is more varied with Bhopal actually seeing a drop in prices, going by the official data, and Jaipur witnessing a 50 per cent jump. Tur, urad and moong are all selling for well over Rs 100 per kilo in Delhi and Mumbai and only a little below that mark in other centres.
The situation in vegetables is not very different. The WPI shows that onion prices are up 30 per cent in April this year compared to April 2014. But that’s only part of the story. In Modi’s own Ahmedabad, the jump is 57 per cent from an average of under Rs 15 per kilo in May last year to an average of Rs 23 per kilo in May this year, according to retail price figures from the National Horticultural Board.
If onion prices are climbing, tomato prices are skyrocketing. In the five cities we talked about, the rise in tomato prices over a year ranges from a low of 55 per cent in Ahmedabad to a high of 265 per cent in Bhopal. Data on peas was available for only three of these cities, but once again the rise is between 30 per cent and 39 per cent. Cauliflower prices have more than doubled in Delhi while rising by just under 50 per cent in Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Brinjal prices are up about 70 per cent in the national capital.
The list can go on, but the point is simple – significantly lower international crude oil prices have helped bring the official indices down, but people can’t consume indices, it’s dal and subzi that matter and they know their prices have been steadily climbing. The household budget is not the only thing to be hit by this rise in food prices. It has serious implications for nutrition in a country that already has a severe crisis of malnutrition. A large section of people in India are vegetarian by custom. An even larger section subsists on a predominantly vegetarian diet by compulsion because meat is simply too costly to be affordable. For these sections, pulses are a crucial source of protein and vegetables are where they get most of their mineral and vitamin requirements. As their prices rise and families at the margin of subsistence are forced to cut consumption, the impact is more than just economic.
Can we expect some action to arrest these prices? Had the government been willing to acknowledge reality, there may have been a slim hope, but with ministers strutting around boasting about how inflation is negative and achhe din are already here, there clearly is nobody willing to fix a problem they pretend does not exist.
Price Increase Over A Year
20 to 38 per cent
22 to 44 per cent
12 to 55 per cent
2 to 53 per cent
55 to 265 per cent
30 to 39 per cent
-10 to 57 per cent
7 to 106 per cent
Data is for Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Bhopal