Prices, Competition and Markets

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.

What Can Indian Economists Learn From Sismondi’

Although J.-C.-L. Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842) lived in Geneva and wrote on economics, history and public policy, his concerns about the role of political economy is valid even today, especially for India. Marx considered Sismondi to be the last classical economist. Sismondi engages with the economics of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and J B Say in his 1819 work New Principles of Political Economy: Of Wealth In Its Relation to Population. This work has been translated into English by Richard Hyse in 1991 (available at Google Books). According to Sismondi, the objective of Political Economy is to ensure that majority of the population live a happy life.

Indian realities

Sainath informs us that India has seen over a quarter of a million farmers’ suicides between 1995 and 2010. The total figure according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is 256,913. And, since 1998, at least 15,000 farmers have committed suicide very year. More unsettling is that fact that the total number of farmers have been declining significantly. In Andhra Pradesh, it is alleged that 90 farmers committed suicide, that too, in rain-fed areas, in the last few weeks.

The inflation of food articles has reached double digits. Food inflation doubly affects the actual cultivators. Since, the prices are fixed by the Government (minimum support prices), the price rise does not benefit the actual cultivators. Secondly, their ability to purchase their usual consumption basket also falls when price rise. It is in this context that M S Swaminathan’s reminders need to be understood. He rightly asserted: ‘If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else can go right for this country.’

Very recently, Dreze and Sen pointed out the nature of the asymmetrical growth that is driving India with a majority of the population living without access to basic amenities. They concluded their article in the Outlook by stating that one of the ways forward is to have a ‘radical broadening of public discussion in India to development-related matters’rather than keeping it confined to simple comparisons of the growth of the gnp, and naive admiration (implicit or explicit) of the high living standards of a relatively small part of the population. An exaggerated concentration on the lives of the minority of the better-off, fed strongly by media interest, gives an unreal picture of the rosiness of what is happening to Indians in general, and stifles public dialogue of other issues.’ In other words, how much has the socio-economic condition of majority of the Indian populace (who happen to be farmers and weavers) improved’


In the hurry to build sophisticated DSGE models and while working out monetary and/or fiscal solutions to inflation and economic growth, it is often forgotten that actual human livelihood is at stake. How can Indian agriculture not be a necessary component of the curriculum in economics’ Within economics, steep walls which cannot be crossed exist between agricultural economics, macroeconomics, monetary economics, labour economics, development economics, etc. The so-called specialization in these fields (to be understood as literature which is not easily accessible or comprehensible to an economist from another field) has reached alarming levels. Sismondi says the following on the nature of economic inquiry:

However, I believe I should protest against the manner, so often superficial, so often false, in which a work on the social sciences is judged in the world. The problem which they offer to resolve is tangled in quite another way than those that arise from the natural sciences; at the same time it appeals to the heart as well as to reason. The observer is called upon to recognize unjust sufferings that come from man, and of which man is the victim. We cannot consider them coldly and pass them over, without seeking some remedy‘(Sismondi 1819: 13).

Maybe, the idea of modern science does not allow investigators to be moved by the ‘object’ under study. Nevertheless, as Sismondi reminds us, economic problems and their solutions affect people (who are not ‘objects’) in a significant manner. The state of Indian farmers and weavers is certainly to be given attention, especially in terms of livelihood building, through providing employment and incomes in a dignified manner.

The following lines from Sismondi echoes what Dreze and Sen recently pointed out as regards Indian growth:

If they find a tremendous accumulation of riches, an improved agriculture, a prosperous business community, manufactures which multiply without end all products of human industry, and a government that disposes of almost inexhaustible coffers, as in England, they call the nation opulent that has all these things, without stopping to inquire whether all those who work with their hands, all those who create this wealth, are not reduced to mere subsistence; whether every tenth member among them must not apply each year to the public welfare; and whether three-fifths of all individuals, in a nation that is called rich, are not exposed to more privation than an equal proportion of individuals in a nation called poor (Sismondi 1819: 22).

In India, the wealth creators, the farmers, are forced to live below even ‘subsistence levels’ as Sainath’s commentary on farmer suicides indicate. Even though we have 53 agricultural universities in India, their contribution to the farming population is circumspect. Three to four decades before, working on agricultural economics and debating issues related to agriculture was fashionable and ‘important’. Today, it is even more important but, perhaps, not very attractive. In fact, the Government admits that the farm sector has been neglected.

Admitting that the government is neglecting research in the farm sector, the agriculture ministry has sought more funds in the next Five Year Plan (2012-2017) for significant jump in food grain production.

But, focussing on aggregate food grain production is clearly insufficient. One needs to look at the ‘production conditions in Indian agriculture’. As Sismondi points out very clearly

Commercial wealth is augmented and distributed by exchange; and even the produce of the ground, so soon as it is gathered in, belongs likewise to commerce. Territorial wealth, on the other hand, is created by means of permanent contracts. With regard to it, the economist’s attention should first be directed to the progress of cultivation; next to the mode in which the produce of the harvest is distributed among those who contribute to its growth; and lastly, to the nature of those rights which belong to the proprietors of land, and to the effects resulting from an alienation of their property (Sismondi 1819: 133).

In 1974, Krishna Bharadwaj published a book Production Conditions in Indian Agriculture. In the same period, economists such as Amit Bhaduri, Ashok Rudra, Amartya Sen, K N Raj, C H Hanumantha Rao, Pranab Bardhan, etc wrote extensively on various aspects of Indian agriculture. The issues Sismondi pointed out were discussed and debated. Bharadwaj points out the significance of examining property relations, technology, local patterns of power, etc. Moreover, she notes that non-economic variables such as tradition, customs, caste and religion determine the economic position of a farmer and thereby determines their income and asset levels. The rise in food inflation has prompted many commentators to hold employment guarantee schemes (NREGA) responsible. If agriculture generated adequate incomes (to maintain a decent and dignified life) employment guarantee would not be necessary. In other words, employment on and off farm cannot be treated as independent of each other. Further, in India, markets are interlocked through both price and non-price links (with the Government playing an ambiguous role). These interlocked markets are exploitative as it denies the following freedoms to the agricultural farmer, who is very much an entrepreneur.

(1)” What to produce’

(2)” How much to produce’

(3)” For whom to produce’

(4)” When to sell the produce’


As Sismondi reminds us, we cannot ignore the majority of the Indian population who do not have access to the basic necessaries of life. Agriculture provides livelihood to more than half the Indian workforce. A farmer is an entrepreneur who produces food, the most basic of all commodities. Although, it might not be academically fashionably and profitable to study Indian agriculture but as Sismondi notes: ‘We cannot consider them coldly and pass them over, without seeking some remedy.’