Monday, December 20

Dal is Meat (rhyme Small is Big)

My idea of a delectable meal often subsumes a meat-rich diet. This has worked well for the foodie in me, providing latitude for wide (some would say wild) experimentation in cuisine and ingredients over the years. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of occasions in the past that would have found me shy of conspicuous consumption of the non-vegetarian kind. It is equally easy to remember my preaching from the pulpit to those missing out on similar indulgences.

Alas what use is a tale without a twist, and mine came up against one via marriage when my six-seventh dedicated carnivorous pursuit met its match. (Incidentally the existing Tuesday exception was likely on account of historical habit more than purely religious reasons.) To cut a long story short, one could be pardoned to think my last post (Dal, Not Boring was my first on food; built around an eminently vegetarian delicacy) to be an ‘inspired’ choice! Yet, apart extenuating domestic circumstances (an outvoted minority status), my alibi is a mehengayi-dayan discussion pending from that post. Indeed, not only is the virus of inflation agnostic to dietary preference, but its acute focus on foods hurts dal as much as chicken, making a complete mockery of the Great (veg-non veg) Divide.

With this backdrop, let me hark back to the RBI Q2 Monetary Policy document mentioned earlier. The central bank's pointed concerns about food inflation expressed therein are a good starting point to appreciate the worrisome situation (in case you missed your grocery bills these last few months). Terming it “structural”, the Review referred specifically to prices of protein based foods (despite policy tweaks and good monsoons, inflation in this segment "remained persistently elevated" mid 20s; six months ago it was a whopping 34%). What officialspeak did not make explicit was the fact that the uptrend is over a year old – meaning this inflation is working off an already high denominator. The resultant compounding effect on end consumer wallets is, naturally, stark.

It is not difficult to discern the roots of "structural demand-supply mismatches” the RBI laments, or to build a case for future worsening. Demand is up, driven by burgeoning population and changing consumption patterns (economic progress whets appetite for more nutritious food). Neither of these is likely to recede - in fact one can well expect significant upside in each. At the same time, we are faced with what the RBI calls "inadequate supply response" meaning there is little relief on the other side of the economic equation. Specific to dal, none of the three global producers (US, Oz, Burma) display any urgency to increase areas under pulses cultivation. (We could, of course, collectively root for a dietary switch towards meat - but that puts at stake much more than my personal domestic discord!)

As a conundrum, it is a desperate one - what else could be more compelling for a nation languishing at # 67 in 85 countries on the Global Hunger Index. Unfortunately the much required sense of urgency seems thus far missing from all stakeholders - policymakers, producers, consumers et al (and certainly in our TRP-happy mainstream media, preening with self-proclaimed righteousness, but content to sell the day's news). The logical solution would be for Indian agriculture to step up, even if its immediate ability to do so remains fairly suspect. Else declared national goals like chasing Security Council seats are entirely meaningless.