It has become commonplace in India to point fingers at the central government when prices of essential commodities such as onion or fuel rise. The underlying arguments behind this accusation could be that: (1) the government is expected to maintain price stability and/or (2) the government should socially engineer agricultural markets in a ‘fair’ manner. But, is the pursuit of price stability not the job of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI)? It is true that the RBI cannot do anything to combat inflation when it is caused by a supply-and-demand mismatch in the domestic vegetable market or the international oil market. What the RBI can do is manage inflation expectations, and that is for another post. The present post is motivated by the insightful analyses of Kannan Kasturi on the Indian vegetable market, published in the Economic & Political Weekly and other places. That is, this post takes up the second of the reasons mentioned earlier.
The price mechanism – adjustments made by producers to the selling prices and consumers to the purchasing prices – is expected to allocate the commodities brought to the market amongst the consumers, in accordance with their needs, reflected in their willingness to pay. The prices therefore act as signals for the producers especially. Sellers can adjust quantity in order to affect prices; hoarding commodities is one such strategy. At equilibrium, producers earn a normal rate of profit, which contains a pure rate of return on capital advanced and a return for risk and entrepreneurship. If producers do not make normal profits in time t, they will cut down production in time t+1. During the equilibration process, producers who are unable to earn a normal rate of profit will exit the market. If entry costs are low, new producers will enter the market. Producers who have large financial resources (or access to easy credit) at their disposal are insulated from temporary alterations in demand. Producers who have enough accumulated earnings can shield themselves from such market volatility. In short, a competitive market is one where prices are not distorted (by the producers or by external intervention), no (especially, cultural and social) barriers to enter the market exist and workers are mobile within and across markets.
Of course, the agricultural markets in India are far from competitive. Since more than 50% of Indians derive their income from agriculture, and particularly because of the poverty of the farmers, these markets require government intervention. This is not to say that any form of government intervention will better the situation. Kasturi quite convincingly shows that the fault lies with the supply-side – the agricultural supply chain. This post will not discuss minimum support prices or other input subsidies, such as for electricity, irrigation and fertilizers. Also to be noted is the specific manner in which the agricultural input markets are inter-linked in India, which has been of an exploitative nature. Finally, social and cultural factors (pertaining to caste and gender) are seen to hinder competitiveness in Indian markets, not just in agriculture.
What are the problems with the agricultural supply chain? Kasturi points out the following: (1) Small farmers lack storage facilities in order to gain from the high market prices. (2) The middlemen (those who intermediate between farmers and final consumers), i.e. the wholesale traders and commission agents have the ability to hoard vegetables and consequently they reap the benefits of the high prices they themselves engineer; the Agricultural Produce Marketing Act governs the agricultural markets (mandis) and it is here where all the proceeds from higher prices are absorbed with nothing reaching the farmers. These traders and commission agents are ‘well entrenched in the mandis, having been in the business on average for 20 years’ (3) Agricultural pricing is not at all transparent and the mandi records are of no assistance in this regard.
To sum up, the nature of government intervention has to change, in such a way that is beneficial to farmers. Proper laws are of utmost importance, not just in protecting the interests of the small farmers, but also that of the consumers. Moreover, intermediaries in any market perform useful functions but laws should be in place which ensures that they do not become monopolistic and exploitative. Agricultural infrastructure such as storage facilities is paramount in this context. A very detailed study of how these supply-chains operate will be of much help in our attempts to combat inflation.