governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Punjab’

Some more onions please

Onions comprise less than 1% by value of India’s agricultural production. The average Indian consumes less than 800 grams of the stuff per month. Onion is a seasonal fruit. Supply traditionally dips during July to September as only the stored winter crop, harvested around March, is available for consumption.

No dearth of onions

onions

photo credit: http://www.washingtonpost.com

India is the second largest producer of onions after China. We produce more than we need and export around 10% of production unless weather events adversely impact the crop. This year unseasonal rain, during harvesting, damaged the winter crop.

But demand is inelastic

Demand is relatively inelastic. Why don’t consumers say no when prices increase? First, onions are to palates in the North, Central and Western parts of India, what fish is to Bengal and curry patta and coconut is to the South. Food, chips even Uttapams taste better with onions. Onion, like Garlic, is also valued for its therapeutic value. Second, onions give a big bang for the buck. An average family spends around Rs 100 per month on the stuff. If price doubles, the burden is irksome but not a killer. Just economizing on pre-paid phone calls can make up the difference. But onion is the key savory for low income households.

It’s the politics stupid!

The fuss about onions is more about politics than economics. The political footprint of onions was established in the 1980 elections. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, on her comeback trail, after her post-emergency election debacle, shrewdly used the price rise in onions to drive home how uncaring of the ordinary person and how incompetent, the government of then Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh had become. This clicked. The Congress won 67% of the Lok Sabha seats. In 1998, a sharp price rise in onions, dethroned the BJP government of Chief Minister, Madanlal Khurana in Delhi thereby establishing a new metric for good governance – the price of onions.

Delhi CM Kejriwal fingers the BJP for price rise

Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal has fingered the Union government for failing to control hoarding and speculation leading to the current price rise. Delhi government flooded Delhi markets in mid-August with onions at Rs 30 per kg. It plans to hold the price line just below Rs 40 per kg through public sector retail supply versus a market retail price of Rs 70 to 80 per kg.

Union government on the back foot

But the Union government claims this is too little and too late. More nimble footwork by the state government could have prevented the steep rise in onion prices in Delhi. The Union government had made available a Price Stabilization Fund of Rs 500 crore in April 2015 which state governments could use by contributing an equal amount to buy onions for retail supply at reasonable rates.

On July 2, when wholesale prices were still around Rs 20 per kg in Lasalgaon, Maharashtra-India’s largest onion mandi, the Union government brought onion under the Essential Commodities Act, thereby enabling stock limits to be enforced on wholesale agencies. It also enforced a Minimum Export Price of Rs 30 per kg to discourage exports.

In todays’ intensely adversarial, no-holds-barred competitive politics no government can ignore a public challenge. The traditionally business friendly BJP government, at the center, is particular sensitive when “hoarders” are fingered for the price rise. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab- all BJP/allies governed states – account for more than 60% of national onion production.

Grow more onions, reduce trade margins & transaction costs

Per a NCAER 2014 paper selected productivity enhancement can boost roduction. Three big onion producing states- Maharashtra, MP and AP- account for 50% of production but produce less than 17 kilo gram per Hectare against 27 and 21.5 kg/Ha in Gujarat and Punjab respectively. Again all three are ruled by BJP/NDP. Increasing productivity in just these three states can boost production by 20% ensuring sustained exports and no domestic shortages. Doing more on reducing the trade margin (better storage, faster transportation, lower market fees) can also leave more of the money with farmers whilst lowering domestic prices.

Clearly the government needs an effective and transparent mechanism, which provides the right price signals and rationalizes expectations for both farmers and consumers.

Killing export or killing farmers

Increasing the Minimum Export Price, as the government has done again this year, is the standard response. But such intervention in the market, even as it helps consumers by diverting supply to the domestic market, robs farmers of the gains from export. It also disrupts any attempt to develop export markets. Similarly, importing onions to keep consumer price low reduces the incentives for farmers to grow onions.

The fall back-leaky public distribution

But both these options are less intrusive than using the public procurement and subsidized retail supply template used for food grain. Such publicly managed mechanisms are invariably highly inefficient and ineffective with cascading losses in procurement, storage, transportation, distribution and retail sale. Sometimes inept government managed imports flood the market after the seasonal supply dip has passed and just as the new crop arrives- with disastrous impact on farmers’ incomes.

Can private distribution agencies do better?

Why not appoint a private trading agency for marginal but politically sensitive food crops, mandated to import, export or arrange for domestic distribution to balance market led demand and supply and keeping retail prices within a pre-defined retail trading band, which meets the twin needs of both farmers and consumers. This is what the RBI does for our currency to avoid excessive volatility.

Private trading agencies would charge a hefty commission for their services but it would be considerably less than the cost of direct administrative action to purchase, stock and supply onions along the Food Corporation of India model.

Onion diplomacy anyone?

Alternatively, use onions as a vehicle for building bridges with our neighbours – particularly Pakistan, which loves the stuff almost as much Punjabis. Why not negotiate a stand- by, bilateral onion supply agreement to meet onion deficits in either country on preferential terms? A similar arrangement is possible with our larger northern neighbor- China whose onion productivity exceeds ours’s. Onions can add a savory flavor to Track 1.5 – B2B- diplomacy.

Say no to expensive onions

Isn’t it high time the government bit the political bullet and said no to being bullied about the price of onions? They are not a necessity, which the sovereign is obliged to supply. The Jains don’t even touch the stuff.

To show that onions are dispensable, the entire cabinet should voluntarily say no to fresh onions during the lean period. PM Modi could launch a social media campaign to entreat well-off folks to substitute fresh onions with dried ones or switch to other seasonings, during the lean period. This can reduce demand and hence prices for those, to whom onions are the only savory they can afford other than salt and chilies.

The core of sustainable living is to adapt to what is seasonally available locally, rather than store, pack, can or transport food compulsively to cater to a menu plan made universally available but at a high cost to the environment.

Politics trumps economics hands down

But the catch is that Bihar is a big consumer of onions. People are unlikely to be amused if they can’t get their daily fix of onion, before they go to vote in November. This is one election the BJP needs to win. Visible, strong, centrally managed administrative action to lower retail prices is therefore likely to win over better options – after all the metric of good governance has to be met.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age August 31, 2015

Wooing Pakistan; India’s “less friendly” neighbor

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(photo credit: post.jagran.com)

PM Modi’s external affairs team has hit the ground running; making friends and influencing people in the region. His visit to Bhutan and Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Ministers’ forthcoming visit to Dhaka, build on links forged previously. These are relatively “low hanging fruit” to show that we want to be part of a friendly neighborhood. PM Modi said as much in Thimpu when, borrowing from  Acemoglou D. (2012), he stressed the criticality of “good neighbors” for gross happiness

But you can’t choose your neighbor and Pakistan is the biggest. It is a mixed blessing that Pakistan is defined politically by the province of Punjab and its heart beats in Lahore. Our blighted common history is most deeply etched in the minds of Punjabis. The upside is that PM Nawaz Sharief has a natural proclivity to develop his province; Punjab. In our Punjab, the BJP has an ally in the Akali Dal. Defence Minister Jaitley has laid claim to his Punjabi heritage and is likely to grow his links with Amritsar. Most importantly, our Punjab has been in relative decline since the 1990s; an outcome of poor fiscal management (Aiyer.S.2012 CATO) by both the Congress and the Akalis. Too many freebies and too little revenue wrecked Punjab, despite its robust agriculture; medium scale industry and vibrant entrepreneurship.

The immediate problem is jobs for unemployed youth. Economic prosperity allows a decent standard of life for even the unemployed young due to family wealth. But drugs and alcohol addiction are the downsides for directionless young people; too rich to work in the manual and semi-skilled jobs available. Rapid industrial growth is the answer for “quality jobs”.

Trade and investment normalization, between Pakistan and India, can immediately benefit the two Punjabs in volumes which could be significant for the two entities. When we expand the analysis to the national level, the welfare gains reduce and point to an imbalance in favor of India. The full potential for trade  is estimated at around USD 20 billion or ten times what it is today, by ICRIR (2013), FICCI (2012), CUTS (2012) and Hafeez Pasha, a previous Finance and Commerce Minister of Pakistan, now Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.

This would still be only 6% of India’s total trade but nearly one half of Pakistan’s total trade. It is unlikely that Pakistan would want to be in the precarious position of being dependent on India’s market to that extent. The realistic bound for trade level is consequently much lower. But this makes it of less interest nationally. Since the business opportunity comes with the considerable risks of insecurity and the adverse impact of an uneven keel in diplomatic ties, businessmen are justified in spending even less time on it.

To complicate matters, the central government in India is no longer in the drivers’ seat. Business opportunities are best defined outside the ambit of government sponsorship and regulation, not within it.  Shrinking fiscal space narrows the opportunities for “directed entrepreneurship” of the Chinese kind. Increasing levels of fiscal federalism and enhanced private investment has strengthened the role of state (provincial) governments in industrial development. Local labour and land regimes have become key to private investment.

Pratap Singh Kairon, Chief Minister of post-partition Punjab (including Haryana and Himachal Pradesh) was famous for micro managing economic development and inviting industrial investment to, what was then, a dusty, rural, unskilled hinterland, a mere adjunct to the urban marvel of Lahore, which still shines as a jewel. But successive governments in Indian Punjab have grown it into the granary of India by utilizing its comparative advantage. It is now time to pool the resources of the two Punjabs to mutual advantage.

Naysayers and conspiracy theorists will point to the downside of closer ties between the two Punjabs providing a basis for the break-away of an amalgamated Punjab from India. Either due to the allegedly “burning” desire of Pakistani elites to undo the shame of the break-away of East Pakistan, by amalgamating our Punjab into Pakistan. Alternatively, but less likely, the theory goes, this could happen due to the efforts of the Khalistani’s to become a separate nation.

Break-aways from India are a romantic’s fantasy, both in Kashmir and in Punjab. Both Kashmiri’s and Punjabis have much more to lose by breaking away from India, than there is to gain, by either carving a separate identity or amalgamating with Pakistan. “Landlocked” developing countries are more prone to fail, as separate nations, for a variety of reasons. Paul Collier (2007).  Punjab and Kashmir qualify on that count.

India’s Punjab, Haryana and Delhi have a combined GDP of around USD 190 billion; broadly similar to the GDP of Pakistan. 85% of Pakistan’s GDP is derived from Punjab and Sindh and 54% of the population is Punjabi.

Punjabiat” is consequently a significant force in forging closer links. But historian Zoya Hassan warns against falling into the trap of assuming that cultural history and identities on both sides of the border alone can drive the future. The political architecture; composition of the elites and aspirations have diverged considerably, since 1947. Notwithstanding the loss of close cultural similarities, economic cooperation provides a firm and sustainable basis for growth and positive welfare benefits on both sides of the border.

It may be wise to be practical rather than romantic or aggressive in identifying what is possible even with the bon-homie current prevailing between the two PMs. Three generic principals can help to make identification of the entry points.

First, trade and investment liberalization can never come at the expense of decreasing levels of security. Any adverse impact must be swiftly containable. This implies that normalization proposals must preclude the proliferation of generalized person-to-person contact.

Second, the proposal must be tightly monitorable. This implies its implementation in a defined and sanitized environment.

Third, it must provide real benefits-jobs and business to local populations along both sides of the border.

All three conditions are met if India proposes a jointly administered industrial hub along the Punjab border with a target of creating 1 million jobs and a turnover of USD 40 billion. This could be an EPZ linked both to Karachi and Mumbai or a combination of an SEZ and production for meeting domestic demand. Naturally 100% FDI would be available with attendant harmonized tax structures.

Since farmers on both sides complain of poor productivity, due to the insecurities of a border area, getting land should not pose difficulties. This would be made easier if displaced farmers are offered commercial incentives in real estate development. The facility could link into the proposed Amritsar to Calcutta and the Delhi to Mumbai industrial corridors on the India side.  

Like Pakistan, which faces growing fiscal pressure from dwindling external aid and has to meet the demands of its demographic dividend, the Akalis are under pressure in Punjab to shape up or ship out. The Defence Minister, Jaitley fell prey to this public disenchantment with the Akalis by failing to get elected from Amritsar. Time for Mr. Badal to act before he and Punjab miss the bus yet again.     

 

 

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