New Delhi, India – Meena Chaudhary often frequents the local late-evening market, when vendors are busy packing makeshift stalls and vegetables are sold at throw-away prices. The quality is run down, but that hardly matters. It’s one of the many tricks the 48-year-old housewife is using to cope with soaring food prices.
Diet has changed dramatically in the Chaudhary family over the past two years. A liter of cooking oil is used with the utmost caution so that it lasts about two weeks, consumption is halved, milk is an occasional delicacy, and fruit and meat are out of reach. Even the humble egg has disappeared from the ever-shrinking menu.
“When my daughter goes to her beautician course, she feels embarrassed to take a lunch box from home because her friends might find out what we eat.” Chaudhary She sits in a tiny apartment in Jagdamba camp in South Delhi, where she lives with her husband and three adult children.
The most striking impact of falling incomes, hurt by inflation, has been on household nutrition, said Dipa Sinha, an assistant professor at Delhi’s Ambedkar University. According to Sinha, who is also part of a pan-India Right to Food campaign led by civil society groups, families are not only eating less, but also less food, leading to declining diet diversity and nutritional outcomes. “Our field studies show that most families have drastically reduced their consumption of legumes, oils, proteins and perishables that are beyond their budget. They are increasingly turning to the federal government’s grain-heavy food subsidies.
Retail inflation in India climbed to 7 percent in March, a 17-month high, led by a better-than-expected rise in food prices, which surged 7.7 percent yoy. The Russia-Ukraine conflict, which has pushed up global food, energy and fertilizer prices, now threatens to make life harder for families like Chaudhary’s.
Even grain prices, which have been benign so far, are showing signs of warming as India looks to fill the wheat supply gap created by the war. India’s wheat exports could hit record highs in 2022-23 despite an estimated 10-15 percent drop in production after an unusually hot March. But signs of domestic shortages could prompt the government to impose export restrictions and join the growing club of countries looking to secure domestic food supplies to buck prospects of higher export earnings, experts said.
China, for example, has been on an import frenzy since early last year, despite restricting fertilizer exports, while countries like Indonesia and Argentina — leading suppliers of cooking oils — recently imposed export restrictions to keep domestic food prices under control.
India’s enthusiasm for wheat exports may return at a later date, said Siraj Chaudhry, CEO of National Commodities Management Services Ltd and former chairman of Cargill India. “The desire to export could trigger an inventory rush and disrupt the delivery of government-run free food programs.”
India’s grain-rich food subsidy programs have helped more than 800 million registered families stave off extreme hunger during the pandemic. “If the government shuts down the free food program that runs until September due to grain shortages, it will justify India’s food surpluses being only fictitious and being masked by widespread malnutrition,” said Sinha of the Right to Food campaign. .
Current surveys point to a precarious situation. More than two-thirds of families could not afford gas for cooking, skipping meals was common and one in two families ran out of food in the month leading up to the survey, according to a Hunger Watch report released in February by the surveyed campaign, ” Right to Food” was published to 6,500 families in 14 states.
Other opinion poll A study by Azim Premji University, which surveyed 3,000 families in low-income settlements in India’s tech and start-up hub Bengaluru, released in late March, found that nearly two years after a strict lockdown was announced in India, four in 10 workers are still unemployed were March 2020. A staggering 40 percent of families reported eating less than before the pandemic, while more than a quarter have borrowed from informal sources and sold or pawned jewelry to meet daily expenses.
The risks of higher food prices in the coming months would make things worse for families like the Chaudharys. Her one-bedroom-kitchen home is up a rickety iron staircase, past a dark and narrow passageway. A maze of narrow lanes with houses stacked like matchboxes on either side, the camp is home to low-income odd-worker families who serve the city’s ritzy neighborhoods.
Chaudhary’s husband makes 10,000 rupees (US$130) a month from his job as a security guard, the same as two years ago before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her sons, aged 19 and 22, have been looking for a job for months. Tight income coupled with rising prices for groceries and cooking gas have forced the family to forgo the occasional donut and homemade sweets. When a guest arrives for a few days, it turns the family’s carefully planned expense report upside down. But most months the money runs out by the twentieth, urging Chaudhary to borrow money from friends and neighbors or tap into the meager family savings.
But food inflation will remain a concern as there is no sign of a resolution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the resulting supply shocks, said Dharmakirti Joshi, chief economist at CRISIL, a ratings and research firm. “Government budgets will take a hit from rising subsidies for food and fertilizer. The worrying aspect is that food inflation is broad-based and affecting more and more commodities.”
The outcome could be devastating for a sizable portion — six out of 10 Indians depend on government-subsidized food. Grain inflation is likely to get a tailwind from rising wheat, corn and barley prices, which threaten to make everyday items ranging from bread, poultry and milk to cookies and beer expensive for consumers. The hit to consumer wallets will come on top of rising cooking oil prices, largely due to India’s acute reliance on imports.
Wholesale agricultural markets would be on fire now were it not for lower incomes and subdued consumer demand, said Arshad Perwez, chief revenue officer at Our Food, a Hyderabad-based agricultural supply chain start-up. “Previous periods of high food prices, for example between 2009 and 2014, were driven by both supply constraints and strong demand, unlike now where aggregate demand is visibly weak.”
This weakness is noticeable in places like Jagdamba camp. Surya Kali, a 43-year-old mother of two, reduced her daily milk purchases from a liter before the pandemic to a 200ml pack at an affordable price of 10 rupees (US$0.13). “Fruit and chickens are the stuff of dreams. I can’t even afford to buy my begging daughter a glass of fresh cane juice on the way home from school. Instead, I tell her: You’re going to catch a cold,” she said.
For some on the fringes, life is at a turning point. Kaushilya Devi, a widow who works as a domestic help, was recently diagnosed with cervical cancer. She can barely afford the doctor-prescribed diet, which includes three glasses of milk a day, especially after the government revoked her document that allowed her access to the government food subsidy scheme after she migrated to Delhi to look for work was.
On a scorching summer day last week, she prepared to cook a pot meal for herself and her three children. Rice, donated by the family she works for as a helper, cooked with onions, green chilies, a pinch of salt and a few spoonfuls of oil. She called it pulav, also known as pilaf—a nutritious dish prepared with generous helpings of meat, spices, vegetables, and fats.