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  Opinion   Columnists  02 Aug 2023  Patralekha Chatterjee | Tomatoes and turbulence: Indians face harder times

Patralekha Chatterjee | Tomatoes and turbulence: Indians face harder times

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com
Published : Aug 3, 2023, 12:35 am IST
Updated : Aug 3, 2023, 12:35 am IST

For context, in 2021, 418 million Asians experienced extreme hunger, indicating a rise from the previous year.

Tomatoes are now part of the subsidy regime in many states. (PTI Photo)
 Tomatoes are now part of the subsidy regime in many states. (PTI Photo)

There is no getting away from the stream of images of chilling violence. Toxicity, fuelled by the contagious hate virus, is spreading faster in a society with an immuno-compromised system and fast losing its natural defences. Meanwhile, for ordinary Indians, the hard times are set to get even harder. On top of everything else, incomes are not rising, while the prices of basic food items soar. The headline-grabbing pricey tomato is just another marker of turbulence as climate change and weather shocks add to the turmoil and uncertainties ahead.

By now, everyone is aware of the tale of the tomato in India. Tomato prices have risen sharply in recent months, triggering tales of tomato thieves and tomato millionaires. 

As I write, the police in Kolar, Karnataka, has launched an investigation into the missing case of a local truck carrying 11 tonnes of tomatoes worth Rs 21 lakhs. The truck was bound for Jaipur in Rajasthan. On July 31, the price of tomatoes rose to an all-time high at Rs 170 per kg in the Solan-based Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC), with a 24-kg crate fetching Rs 4,100.  Tomatoes are now part of the subsidy regime in many states. The Tamil Nadu government, for example, has decided to expand the sale of tomatoes at a subsidised rate of Rs 60 per kilo through 500 ration shops across the state. In mid-July, the Union government also put out an official statement flagging its intervention of selling tomatoes at concessional rates at several locations in the country where the prices had reached alarming levels. Tomatoes are off the menu in many fast-food outlets in the country.

But while the everyday tomato has emerged as a star newsmaker, it is no longer just about tomatoes. So, whataboutery will not work.

Today, the rise in food prices is being driven by a spike in a host of other items, including other vegetables, pulses, cereals, and now even spices. Erratic and extreme weather, leading to shortages in supply and hoarding, have cumulatively pushed up prices of turmeric and ginger, two widely used spices in Indian cuisine. With Onam, a major harvest festival, around the corner, there are anxious reports in newspapers in Kerala about the soaring prices of vegetables, pulses and other essential commodities disrupting household budgets in the state. Onions are the latest on the hit list. Retail prices of onions have started clambering up for the first time in nearly two years in the wake of reports of sluggish kharif sowing due to a delay in the arrival of the monsoon in Maharashtra and Karnataka, two key onion producing states.  

“Weaker monsoon rains in parts of India and floods in other areas contributed to soaring prices of vegetables, cereals, and pulses. Food, which makes up about half of the CPI (consumer price index) basket, pushed inflation to a three-month high of 4.81 per cent in June,” noted Bloomberg, a leader provider of business news and insights.

Arguably, weather shocks jolting food prices is not a uniquely Indian phenomenon. It is a global trend. But in India, with most of the population working in informal jobs with scant social protection, the knocks are harder than many other places. The alarming rise in the cost of tomatoes in India is just the trailer. Climate change is affecting agriculture and consequently food prices with implications for food security.

We need to be well-prepared.

The recently released “Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2023” offers some important insights.

“Drought, intense rainfall, and floods are already contributing to decreasing agricultural produce and surging food prices. Those most impacted by a decline in agricultural productivity will be the many farming communities living on the brink of poverty and the urban poor who are vulnerable to food price inflation...”, notes the report, brought out the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

“Climate change-induced disasters pose an increasingly serious threat to Asia and the Pacific. The region remains the most disaster-prone region in the world where two million people have lost their lives to disasters since 1970. In 2022, over 140 disasters struck the Asia-Pacific region, leading to over 7,500 deaths, affecting over 64 million people, and causing economic damage estimated at $57 billion. Climate change is already affecting agriculture, including fisheries and livestock, across various economies and farming systems,” the report adds.

As many experts have pointed out, rice and wheat, the region’s staple crops, are particularly vulnerable due to their high-water dependency and heat stress and water scarcity resulting from climate change increases the risk of drought and crop loss, leading to higher food prices. The ESCAP report also points out that the decline in agricultural productivity due to climate-related hazards will have severe consequences for food security, particularly for vulnerable farming communities and urban poor populations already living in poverty.

For context, in 2021, 418 million Asians experienced extreme hunger, indicating a rise from the previous year.

Many would argue that India is not among the worst-off as far as domestic food inflation goes.  Venezuela, Lebanon, Zimbabwe, Argentina and Suriname are among the hardest-hit countries. But that is no consolation for ordinary Indian families struck by scorching food prices.

How the monsoon plays out in the coming weeks would be crucial. Till date, there has been uneven distribution of rain -- some parts of India being ravaged by incessant rains and intense floods while there are drought-like conditions in other places. We are already seeing the impact. The government has imposed export bans on non-basmati white rice varieties, hoping to stave off inflationary pressures on a diet staple. A July 20 statement by the ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution noted that this was done “in order to ensure adequate availability of non-basmati white rice in the Indian market and to allay the rise in prices in the domestic market”.

The bottom line -- weather shocks are here to stay. Climate change is affecting the food that we eat in India.Our policies must factor that in. Farmers must get early warnings and be equipped to adapt to erratic and extreme weather. Agriculture provides employment to over 40 per cent of India's labour force. India may be in a geoeconomic sweet spot for now, but the everyday life of ordinary Indians will get grimmer if food inflation does not slow down.

Tags: climate change, tomato prices, patralekha chatterjee column