Even before PM Modi made his pledge, a record-breaking heat wave that started in March was threatening wheat output in India. That cut production and pushed up local prices, making everyday life more expensive for hundreds of millions of Indians that use the grain to make staple foods like naan and chappatis.
Indications that a bumper wheat harvest wasn’t going to eventuate prompted the government to restrict exports in mid-May. State reserves have declined in August to the lowest level for the month in 14 years, according to Food Corp. of India, while consumer wheat inflation is running at close to 12%.
The looming shortage and rising prices now have authorities making preparations to buy from overseas. Government officials are discussing whether to cut or abolish a 40% import tax on wheat to help flour millers in some regions to import grain, people familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified as the talks are private. This was first reported by Reuters.
The finance ministry didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. A spokesperson for the food and commerce ministries declined to comment. The food department on Sunday said in a Twitter post there was no “plan to import wheat” and the country has sufficient stocks to meet its requirements.
“Given a lot of the war risk premium has come off from global wheat prices, India can look at augmenting its domestic wheat supply via more imports,” said Sonal Varma, an economist at Nomura Holdings. “However, since domestic wholesale wheat prices are lower than global prices, a reduction in import duties will also be essential to make it a viable option.”
Wheat spiked to near $14 a bushel in Chicago in early March as the war in Europe threatened a major source of global exports. Prices have now given up all of those gains as supply fears ease. They’re back below $8, alleviating some of the pressure on developing economies struggling to feed their people.
Despite being the world’s second-biggest wheat grower, India has never been a major exporter. It also never imported much, with overseas purchases at about 0.02% of production annually. The country was pretty much self-sufficient.
Authorities now expect the 2021-22 harvest to come in at around 107 million tons, down from a February estimate of 111 million. That may still be too optimistic as traders and flour millers forecast 98 million to 102 million tons.
Government purchases of wheat for the country’s food aid program, the world’s largest, are expected to be less than half of levels last year, according to the food ministry. That prompted authorities to distribute more rice in some states, and also to restrict exports of wheat flour and other products.
Consumer wheat inflation has held above 9% year-on-year since April and surged to 11.7% in July. Wholesale prices were up even more, by 13.6% in July, official data show. That’s creating a headache for the central bank, which is trying to bring overall inflation, currently near 7%, back under its 6% target.
Wheat is India’s biggest winter crop, with planting happening in October and November and harvesting in March and April. There are also concerns about its rice production, which could be the next challenge for global food supply.
“Cereal inflation is a concern on the back of lower paddy sowing,” said Sameer Narang, an economist at ICICI Bank in Mumbai. The rising cereal prices are likely to continue for a while, he said.