The lingering bitter taste of price rise in Tamil Nadu
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A continual increase in retail rates of essential items, including tomato and tur dal, has left consumers in Tamil Nadu performing a juggling act with budgets daily, especially with incomes that are fixed, writes K. Lakshmi

July 16, 2023 12:42 am | Updated 01:43 pm IST

The sustained surge in the food prices in Tamil Nadu has affected the food choices and purchasing power of consumers. Tomato alone retailed for ₹160 in Chennai in the past week.

The sustained surge in the food prices in Tamil Nadu has affected the food choices and purchasing power of consumers. Tomato alone retailed for ₹160 in Chennai in the past week. | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

Rain or shine, any extreme weather condition influences the supply and prices of commodities every year in Tamil Nadu. This time, extreme weather events — a record heat wave in June, succeeded by an unprecedented rain in many supply States — have compounded the shortage and pushed up the prices.

The sustained surge in the food prices in the State has affected the food choices and purchasing power of consumers; given the fixed monthly incomes, it has had a cascading effect on consumer spending on healthcare, electricity, transport and entertainment.

Consumers are confronting the phenomenal increase in the prices of vegetables, especially of tomato, that is hitting new highs daily, thereby altering consumption patterns. The prices of pulses and food grains such as rice and tur dal — though they have a longer shelf life than vegetables — have also been rising, leading to people using these commodities frugally. Many persons claim they have been forced to improvise recipes to shield themselves from the rising retail food prices.

In her struggle to make ends meet, Aarti Santosh, of Thiruvanmiyur in Chennai, has been trying out innovative recipes. “I substitute roasted grams for tomatoes in gravies and use roasted chickpeas powder to brew coffee to manage my household budget. I spend 40% more on food a month. My weekly budget for fruits and vegetables has climbed from ₹700 to almost ₹1,300. My budget on healthcare, transport and even entertainment has been compromised because of the food cost,” she said. Small yields from terrace gardens, choice of locally grown, cheaper vegetables, cutting down on dining out and switching from packaged food to home food are some of her strategies to cope with the situation.

Increase in power tariff

Residents note that the rising food prices have further dented their budget that has already gone awry with a steep increase in electricity tariff. Besides the higher tariff, some consumers bore the brunt of higher charges for new power connections, security deposits and replacement of meters.

While some residents switched to public transport, others chose lesser-known brands and cut down on eating out and ordering food online. Though the prices of a few vegetables went up during non-seasonal time, residents in Tiruchi said it was probably the first time in recent years that the prices of several essential items had increased abnormally. “I shell out ₹300 for one kg each of tomato and small onion alone. My regular spending on vegetables has gone up to ₹1,500,” says M. Vasudevan, an electrician who regularly visits the Gandhi Market.

“I substitute roasted grams for tomatoes in gravies and use roasted chickpeas powder to brew coffee to manage my household budget. I spend 40% more on food a month. My weekly budget for fruits and vegetables has climbed from ₹700 to almost ₹1,300”Aarti SantoshA resident of Thiruvanmiyur

The working class in Tiruppur is among the worst affected by the rising cost of groceries. Joblessness has forced most of these families to buy rice from fair price shops alone. “The retail inflation must be curbed. People are forced to pledge jewels to pay their food expenses,” said N. Shanmugasundaram, president of the Nallur Consumers Welfare Council. Restaurants have been finding the going tough too. Uma Hari of GalaGala Nest that runs Mamee Soups in Chennai said customers complained that they found the cost quite high. “We avoid expensive vegetables in dishes. We have switched to packing and selling individual items rather than the regular sets,” she said. Using packages purées instead of tomatoes is also another strategy.

Members of the Coimbatore District Hoteliers Association note that they may have to reconsider their decision on prices. “We cannot cut down on vegetables. If the price hike persists, we need to consider a price revision,” said R. Balachandar, secretary of the Association.

Tomato price hit the roof past week, retailing for ₹160 in Chennai, leading to the culinary must-have thrown off the menu at many households. The tomato price hike has sparked hilarious memes and animated videos on social media.

Switched to other crops

Traders at the Koyambedu wholesale market, a hub of perishable goods in Chennai, said farmers switched to other crops as tomato was sold for only ₹15-₹20 mid-May. The drop in cultivation, the surge in demand during the wedding season and severe weather disturbances that led to logistics problems had driven up the price. Ginger, garlic, beans, green chillies and coriander leaves are also priced high.

P. Sukumar, treasurer, Koyambedu Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers Merchants Association, said vegetable cultivation had disappeared around Chennai and many parts of the State over the past few decades. Now, tomato cultivation is restricted to Krishnagiri and Hosur in Tamil Nadu. Chennai is largely dependent on Palamaner, Kolar and Srinivasapuram in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka for the produce.

Wholesale price was fixed on daily arrivals, and stocks are often diverted to other States, pushing the cost up. Ginger has witnessed a sharp rise in its cost because of poor cultivation in Kerala.

“We are expecting a dip in the prices of some expensive vegetables in a week after the demand falls by 25%. Tomato arrivals may increase after July 20 with a fresh harvest,” he said.

‘Uzhavar Santhais’ (farmers’ markets) in Ramanathapuram are receiving more patronage. Many, like Kumar of Ramanathapuram, bought less because tomato, selling at ₹95 a kg as against ₹140 in the open market, was still out of reach. Inflation seemed to have changed consumers’ behaviour in Madurai. People who would stock up on groceries for two to three months bought smaller quantities and looked for alternatives. K. Santhosh Kumar of Madurai said he used less cooking oil and vegetables at home. Dining out is a rarity.

Rice prices climb

In Coimbatore, rice prices have climbed as the increase in electricity charges and labour charges, apart from the paddy cost, has pushed up production cost in rice mills. Paddy arrivals from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have come down this year and paddy that was available at ₹24 a kg is ₹30 a kg now.

Though vegetables are retailed at an exorbitant cost across the State, farmers are not benefiting. P.T. Rajendran, a farmer of Kalasapakkam, Tiruvannamalai, said farmers in his area were not getting good rates for vegetables. “I was paid between ₹15-₹30 a kg for ladies fingers. For the inputs, farmers need at least ₹30 a kg to grow vegetables. When farmers took country tomatoes to the market a few weeks ago, there were no takers at ₹30 a kg since hybrid tomatoes were available at ₹10-₹15 a kg. We don’t have enough cold storage. Farmers don’t get Periyakulam-1 variety of tomato seeds. Unless seeds are available, how can we plant them?”

‘Improve cold storage’

Traders and farmers demand better cold storage to combat price volatility and minimise wastage. Water resources must be improved for better production of pulses and vegetables. K. Ammaiyappan, a trader in Madurai, called for fixing minimum support price (MSP).

“Millets should be promoted as an option at fair price shops and rice must be diverted to places where there is more demand to avoid smuggling. The government must take measures to increase tomato cultivation and encourage terrace gardens”T. SadagopanMember of Civil Supplies Department’s price monitoring committee

T. Sadagopan, member of the Civil Supplies Department’s price-monitoring committee, said every district must have cold storage for perishable items. Godowns in Avadi could be used for storing pulses. “I had also suggested that millets be promoted as an option at fair price shops and rice must be diverted to places where there is more demand to avoid smuggling. The government must take measures to increase tomato cultivation and encourage terrace gardens. Details of outlets that sell vegetables at subsidised rates must be uploaded on the website,” he said.

In a bid to stabilise the vegetable prices, the State government has resorted to interventions, including tomato sale at fair price shops and farm fresh outlets. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has requested the Centre to allot 10,000 metric tonnes each of wheat and tur dal from the Central stock.

Agriculture Secretary C. Samayamoorthy said the government supported the farmers with subsidy under various schemes to increase productivity. To sustain paddy production and supply, the government procured through direct purchase centres and offered incentives of ₹100 and ₹75 a quintal for fine and bold varieties respectively. For a steady supply of tomato and onion, off-season production and the expansion of the area are being supported. Low-cost onion storage structures, of around 1.66-tonne capacity, are being installed under the National Horticulture Mission to make onion available throughout the year. Tomatoes are being sold at the farm-gate price at 177 ‘Uzhavar Santhais’, which is 30%-40% less than the retail market price.

The State’s vegetable production is 63 lakh tonnes, and demand exceeds production by almost 6 lakh tonnes. Vegetable cultivation is comparatively labour intensive as there are multiple harvests. The department assists farmers in growing vegetables covering more land through the area expansion programme.

In 2022-23, an area of 27, 680 hectares was promoted at a cost of ₹53 crore. Seeds and seedlings were also supplied. There are plans to expand the area to 32, 645 hectares to cultivate vegetables in 2023-24 on an outlay of ₹51 crore, Mr. Samayamoorthy said.

While concerns are raised about El Niño, a climatic event caused by the currents in the Pacific Ocean that proves detrimental to the southwest monsoon and agricultural production, Y.E.A. Raj, former Deputy Director-General of Meteorology, Chennai, said it was not the only factor to influence the monsoon and a moderate El Niño may develop in August. There have been occasions when the monsoon was robust even during severe El Niño, as in 1997. The monsoon has given normal rain to Tamil Nadu so far.

Agricultural economists noted that Tamil Nadu is yet to gain proper knowledge of methodology to store commodities, except for potatoes and apples. Tamil Nadu Agricultural University must focus on developing a cold storage protocol for different produce and strengthen its crop advisory and price forecasting mechanism.

V.K. Ravichandran, an expert of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and former professor, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), said farmers must be educated about climate change-induced price fluctuations. Small harvesting tools must be developed to enable farmers to harvest vegetables at a tender stage.

Besides weather events, viruses, such as leaf curl and cucumber mosaic, affected tomato production in some States. C. Ramasamy, former Vice-Chancellor, TNAU, noted that several farmers in Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri districts, the hubs of tomato cultivation, shifted to cotton farming this year as the prices were high last year. There has been a 25% decrease in consumption among consumers. The increase in the prices of some vegetables and pulses was more of a cross-price effect as they served as substitutes for those items in deficit. There is a need for a better cold supply chain to balance the alternating glut and shortage, he said.

(With inputs from Deepa H. Ramakrishnan and R. Srikanth in Chennai; C. Jaishankar in Tiruchi; M. Soundariya Preetha in Coimbatore; R. Krishnamoorthy in Tiruppur; and S. Sundar and B. Tilakchandar in Madurai)

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