Winter is usually when tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, peppers, radishes, peas, spinach, and other vegetables become relatively affordable. It has to do with the fact that their plantings take place mainly from August to October. In the case of tomatoes, these start even earlier – from mid-June with the monsoon rains to the end of September. Given that these are all 50 to 100 day harvests – tomatoes take 110-120 days but start to bear fruit after 70-80 days, about 8-10 “flushes” in 4-5 days – Intervals – their arrival peaks in winter and contributes to the familiar pattern of low prices at that time. Even the kharif bulbs planted in June-July are ready for harvest in October-December. The same goes for the early Rabi potato, which comes from the low hills of Himachal Pradesh, followed by Punjab in November-December.
The winter, which is only just beginning, turns out to be completely different. Tomatoes retail at Rs 60 per kg and onions at Rs 40, compared to their corresponding overall India levels of Rs 40 and Rs 30 three months ago. The reason for this is simple: irregular rainfall. Rainfall was generally poor during Kharif’s peak season from mid-June to August, though less so in the major vegetable growing centers of Maharashtra and southern India. But Maharashtra saw excessive rains in September and October, affecting production of both kharif onions and tomatoes, particularly grown in the Nashik belt. November was even worse, especially in the south, as the standing Kharif tomato harvest – be it in Madanapalle and Ramasamudram in the Rayalaseema region in Andhra Pradesh, Kolar, Chikkaballapur and Doddaballapur in Karnataka or Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu – suffered significant damage.
The above unusual price hike gives cause for concern in two ways. The first concerns the impact on inflation and, more importantly, public inflation expectations. At a time when the latter is already higher – thanks to the sharp rise in prices for gasoline, diesel, LPG and cooking oil last year – more expensive tomatoes and onions would only exacerbate the pain points. Incidentally, consumer price inflation for vegetables was minus 19.43 percent in October. This rate recovery in the opposite direction, highly unusual in winter, makes it all the more difficult for the Reserve Bank of India to continue its expansionary monetary policy. The second concern is longer term and relates to climate change. This is the second year in a row that the peninsula experienced heavy unusual rains in September-October that destroyed the harvest-ready Kharif cultures. She calls for a new public storage policy – away from rice and wheat to legumes, edible oils and vegetables, which are more prone to climate and global price risks. Vegetable storage can even be done in dried / processed forms such as potato flakes, onion paste, and tomato puree.
This editorial appeared for the first time in the print edition on November 29, 2021 under the title “New Menu”.