Inflated prices, deflated income - COVID-19's impact on commodities

Inflated prices, deflated income - COVID-19's impact on commodities

The most direct effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is the sharp spike in prices of commodities, be it food or clothes. People are now spending more than usual, many facing difficulties in buying daily commodities. Vegetables, fruits and meat, are sold at higher prices than before especially since the festive season began.

Devika Rai, vegetable and fruit seller says, “Due to the pandemic there has been rise in demand of vegetables in market but the supply has decreased which is leading in direct rise of prices in vegetables.  Potatoes which were earlier sold at Rs 30 per kilo has now become Rs 60 per kilo."

She adds, “The climate has also not been in favor of farmers due to which vegetation has decreased leading to a rise in price”.

Sharika Thakur, a fruit seller said: “fruits for my shop directly comes from Siliguri and when there was lockdown there was limited movement of vehicles with higher transportation charges, and the prices of fruit was also higher than before, we tried to sell it in minimum and kept profit at minimum”.

From the month of May to September, the price has drastically increased. Tomatoes now cost Rs 60 (used to be Rs 30), onions cost Rs 70 (used to be Rs 30) and cauliflower cost 70 (used to be Rs 30).

Similarly, meat and fish sellers feel the same. S.N Mathure, a poultry chicken and fish seller, explains that due to the lockdown, there was a shortage of chicks from Siliguri, leading to a low supply of meat. "The poultry farmers also faced a lot of problems as they also couldn’t give proper medicine to chicks which led to low availability of meat and hence to cover the loss, the rates of chicken were increased.”

He also stated that after the lifting of ban and allowing movement of vehicles and people by the Sikkim government, poultry farmers could now get the chicks but the prices haven't decreased as the transportation rate is higher than before.

Santa Bir, a beef and pork meat seller, says, “Earlier during the months of April-May even we were scared of the coronavirus and decided to isolate at our homes since we thought it would only last for a month or so - but it didn’t go that way and we decided to step in the market.”

According to him, the demand for meat was higher than before in the market but supply was less as transportation was limited and rates higher. Still, he believes that now some normalcy has returned and hopes there will soon be a decrease in the price.

Sikkim's biggest brand of farming, organic, also could not stop itself from the effects of the globally debilitating coronavirus. Ancho Lepcha, an organic farmer mentions how people who had taken up organic farming in various villages were scared of contracting the virus due to which there was less farming, eventually leading to less produce. Even for organic farmers, transportation cost played a key role in the increase of prices for organic vegetables. 

But leaving aside the sellers' grievances, consumers are having an equally tough time to make ends meet and buy food.

Nim Pem Bhutia, a resident of Gangtok, says, “The prices of vegetables and fruits are hitting the sky, budget has almost doubled and it is becoming very difficult for us middle class and lower class people to consume healthy and fresh vegetables like before."

Dr Santa Keshavam, a professor at SRM university comments on the subsequent rise of commodities. “Sikkim is not producing adequate amount of vegetables and fruits to meet the demand. Hence the considerable increase in price. Rise in prices is not affecting people like us who are salaried class. But adversely affecting the lower middle class families. Due to rise in price they may not be able to consume adequate vegetable and fruits."

Sonam Thendup Bhutia, another consumer, says that anything one wants to buy is right now is expensive, but to survive, one has to eat so there is no option left but to buy."

The pandemic has also affected the export of large cardamoms, Sikkim's sole GI tagged produce. Tharo pathay, cherenla are most common breed of bada elaichi in Sikkim. the process by which these cardamoms are made market ready includes 4 major phases

  1. The planting of saplings
  2. providing sufficient water and manure
  3. the separation of seeds from the plants
  4. drying of the seeds

The cardamom saplings are planted at the month of  august, for two long months they are given proper water and manure and in last weeks of September and early October the seeds from the plant are separated, then the seeds are dried up in a chimney like structure locally known as Bhatti after which they are weighted then they are ready for market.

This is a long process and usually, yields in high amounts for the cultivators but not this year. There has been a significant downfall in production and the price has decreased. What used to be sold at Rs 17000 is now sold at Rs 13000, on a good day. 

L.T Bhutia, another cultivator, says the other reason why the rates have decreased is that since the value of cardamon has decreased and international trade is not flexible as before, the exports of cardamon in the international market is lesser now than before. 

"It has been very difficult for us during this pandemic cause the plant needs proper care and due to lockdown, all the people isolated themselves so the plants couldn’t be nurtured, after what was left we sold it in the market but couldn’t get a good market value. Hence it resulted in loss", says Tashi Bhutia, another cardamom farmer. “I feed my family through cardamom cultivation and just hope that everything gets back to normal soon."

By Sherab Palden Bhutia. The author is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at paldenborges015@gmail.com.

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