The federal government pulled a remarkable sleight of hand that went unnoticed in the presser held on March, 24. Sadly, top journos present - wearing their 'economist' hats - were too busy finding out whether their credit card payments will be deferred or not - to have grilled the ministers over it.
It was the single-largest spending under the wheat procurement head – Rs 280 billion - that should have caught the eye of observers. Based on support price of Rs 1,400 per 40kg fixed just two weeks ago, the earmarked funds would buy 8 million tons of wheat, only that is eerily similar to the procurement target already announced by ECC before the onset of pandemic.
Minister for NFS&R noted that funds were being set aside to extend immediate support to farmers. Given the crop is grown by over 80 percent of all private farms in the country, additional wheat procurement would be a sure shot way to inject cash into farm economy “over next 6 weeks”. Except, the key word is “additional”, and the amount is anything but.
Well-placed sources within the ministry initially remarked that the amount is for “additional procurement, given the task for the year is monumental”. Upon cross-verification, the version could no longer be confirmed; instead, became abundantly obvious that the bill for procurement will be footed largely by provincial food departments, as per regular practice. Federal’s share through PASSCO stands at just 25 percent of total, as explained earlier in this space (For more, read: ‘Wheat output: steady won’t cut it’ published on March 20, 2020).
Having said that, the government may not entirely be faulted for tinkering with the presentation, given it was hard pressed by the media ‘to be seen doing something’. However, considering that the ECC is not chaired by the PM, it is hoped that the intended audience of the spin was general public only.
From a food security lens, if there is one thing the government must be seen doing right now is limiting supply chain disruption – a challenge that the PM has repeatedly emphasized. Barring wheat procurement, the NFS&R segment of the presser was a welcome change, as the minister signalled calm to the markets noting adequate availability of stocks of essential kitchen items such as ghee, rice, onion, and tomatoes.
This was much needed given the country has jumped from one food-related shortage to the next over the past year, driving food inflation into double digits. Minister’s confidence building measure was especially vital to dissuade any incentives to hoarders, as he noted that such practices will fail to payoff given falling commodity prices in the international market.
It remains to be seen whether availability of kitchen essentials will face major disruption if the lockdown continues for several weeks or not. It is unfortunate that the minister was not subjected to tough questions following his presentation, thus few still warrant a mention.
For example, it was noted that stocks of pulses and legumes is already available in the market for coming two months. And while global prices may witness a substantial decline due to demand compression, can markets truly persevere in the face of port disruption? As things stand, logistics, and not affordability of imported items is the core operational facet of the crisis.
And while pulses remain top-of-the-mind-recall for their mantle as “poor’s meal”, a much bigger challenge may come from the poultry sector. Soybean – primary input for poultry feed - is a billion-dollar import item that remains hidden in the crevices of 8-digit trade details. From near-port storage of raw material, to processing and slaughtering, poultry’s is a complex supply chain involving hundred, if not thousands of personnel, and is almost certain to be hit by restrictions on movement.
That said, any market failure in this respect will hardly be a fault of the government as it painstakingly struggles to perform a balancing act between a health crisis and economic continuity. In these uncertain times, what it can still offer is transparency by avoiding false promises. For its part, the media can begin with asking the right questions regarding food security, so the public may be prepared for the prolonged disruption it faces.
The pandemic will not go away without taking its pound of flesh from the economy. Transparency and preparedness through public engagement may prove our only weapon against the common enemy.