Modi Needs Rural India To Pick Up Pace, But Food Imports Hampering Progress

02/02/2016 3:38 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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SAM PANTHAKY via Getty Images
Indian farmer Gomtiben lifts a basket loaded with cauliflowers in a field in Rasalpur village, some 50 km from Ahmedabad, on January 26, 2016. AFP PHOTO / Sam PANTHAKY / AFP / SAM PANTHAKY (Photo credit should read SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a late night meeting with food and farm officials last week to address falling agricultural output and rising prices, and traders warn the country will soon be a net buyer of some key commodities for the first time in years.

Back-to-back droughts, the lack of long-term investment in agriculture and increasing demands from a growing population are undermining the country's bid to be self-sufficient in food.

That is creating opportunities for foreign suppliers in generally weak commodity markets, but is a headache for Modi, who needs the farm sector to pick up in order to spur economic growth and keep his political ambitions on track.

"The top brass is dead serious about the farm sector that is so crucial to our overall economic growth and well-being," said a source who was present at the recent gathering of Modi, his agriculture and food ministers and other officials.

Modi sat through presentations and asked the ministers to ensure steady supplies and stable prices, urging them to find solutions, the source said. Modi did not suggest any immediate interventions of his own.

The long term impact on commodity markets could be significant.

Last month, India made its first purchases of corn in 16 years. It has also been increasing purchases of other products, such as lentils and oilmeals, as production falls short.

Wheat and sugar stocks, while sufficient in warehouses now, are depleting fast, leading some traders to predict the need for imports next year.

"There's a complete collapse of Indian agriculture, and that's because of the callous neglect by the government," said Devinder Sharma, an independent food and trade policy analyst.

"Given the state of agriculture, I'm not surprised to see India emerging as an importer of a number of food items. Maize is just the beginning."

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