Inflationary fears haunt India


Months ago the talk of India appeared to be shooting stock prices, brave business deals and cricket wins. In a New Delhi vegetable market swarming with flies, chatter has turned more mundane, and angry, to rising prices.


"I have never seen prices rise as fast as they've done this year," Shanker Lal, 47, said in his stall where the flies appeared to outnumber his onions. "How will the poor manage?"


India's wholesale inflation rose to 7 per cent in March, the highest in three years due to spiralling food and energy costs. Many Indian consumers say they are feeling the pinch even more than those statistics would suggest.


If it is not contained, that consumer anger could shape India's political future as its 1 billion plus people gear up for general elections sometime between October and May when a Congress-led left-of-centre coalition will aim for re-election.


The opposition, including the more pro-market Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and smaller caste and region-based parties, has called for protests over price rises, seen the flip side to an economic boom of the last four years.


"I blame the government," said Chavinder Singh, a 42 year-old driver sitting by the stall. "All our vegetables are going to foreign countries."


India appears to have become obsessed with inflation. India's newspapers, only a few months ago celebrating spurting stock indices, now fill front pages with news of price rises.


"Food inflation is a real challenge. India is no longer self-sufficient and our stocks are depleted," said DK Joshi, principal economist at credit rating agency Crisil, adding India could soon be forced to buy more expensive food imports, something that has already happened with wheat.


"The pressure on prices does not look like it will ease."


Mint, a leading business newspaper, reproduced front pages of a host of regional language newspapers. All featured inflation worries in the headlines.


"Oh lord, vanquish the inflation demon," one newspaper pleaded in Punjabi.


"Bad News In Any Language" was Mint's own headline.


A poll by TSI/Cvoter showed that rising prices were the main concern of 56 per cent of respondents. The survey on 17,000 Indians in February and March said 55 percent of respondents thought their current expenses had become difficult to manage.


Which is all bad news before an election for ruling Congress which came to power on the promise of "inclusive growth" and now worries it could suffer the same fate as the BJP in 2004, when a backlash from millions of Indians threw the party out.


Food prices have been key to political survival in the past. Onion prices helped push out a government in 1980. Some states facing elections are promising subsidised rice for voters and the central government has already pressured steel companies to roll back price hikes.


Economists say the official inflation rate may underestimate rises. The rate excludes the service sector.


"Our inflation is suppressed," said Joshi, pointing to government controls on fuel prices.


Economists debate whether this inflation will just prove a blip. A similar jump in prices last year proved temporary, and much depends on international commodity markets.


Whatever the statistics, Indians perceive prices are high. In Mumbai, 29-year-old civil servant Megha Prabhu says her grocery bill has risen between 20 and 30 per cent.


"You have a certain budget set aside and savings and then it all goes haywire," she said as shopped for pears.


Rising prices are a global concern, as international commodities prices rise on speculation, surging demand in Asia, bad weather and biofuel, Lennart Bage, president of the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development, told Reuters.  But India suffers a double whammy, where years of poor agricultural performance have created supply bottlenecks.


Last year, the government raised interest rates as inflation hit a two-year high. Inflation subsided but the rate hikes also hit growth, now forecast to slow to about 8 per cent this year, compared to nearly 9 per cent the previous fiscal year.


Now the government's room to manoeuvre may have thinned and consumers are stuck in the middle.


"My husband ... feels I am spending too much," said housewife Vasudha Jayant in a mall in Ahmedabad in western India. "I am just unable to convince him that prices are soaring every day." (Reuters)