As we look ahead to the general elections slated for early next year in both India and Bangladesh, a pressing concern looms large over the subcontinent – the precarious state of food grain supply chains and the persistent threat of inflation. Meanwhile, Nepal seeks India’s support to meet its escalating demand for rice, wheat, and paddy in the upcoming festive season, while hoping that India would reciprocate its recent gesture when Nepal exported tomatoes to help stabilize crop prices. This complex scenario underscores the delicate dance that India must perform as it balances its domestic needs with its role as a regional leader. The world’s gaze is fixed on South Asia, where inflation, exacerbated by rising food and fuel costs, is an alarming issue. Climate change, with its erratic rains and excessive heat, has hit crop production hard, amplifying the woes. The ongoing Ukraine conflict has further disrupted global food supply chains. Bangladesh, in a proactive move, has initiated discussions with Russia and Myanmar to secure a steady supply of rice and wheat. Reports indicate that the country’s current food reserves are sufficient for the time being, but by early 2024, when elections beckon, these reserves are likely to run dry. However, both Russia and Myanmar have proposed selling prices that Bangladesh deems too high, and Myanmar is unsure if it can fully meet Dhaka’s grain demands.
It’s no wonder that both Bangladesh and Nepal are counting on India to come to their aid in this difficult hour. Alongside Sri Lanka and China, Bangladesh and Nepal have been regular importers of Indian rice in more stable times. For instance, Nepal imported 1.4 million tonnes of Indian rice in 2021, amounting to over $473 million. In 2022, Bangladesh sourced 37% of its total rice imports from India, spending a substantial $2.81 million. However, as we approach the end of 2023 and the first quarter of 2024, India faces its unique challenges. Lok Sabha elections loom on the horizon, expected around mid-2024. Food prices will inevitably become a focal point of political discourse. Initial signs of pre-harvest forecasts do not paint an encouraging picture, particularly in the southern states. The El Nino factor threatens reduced monsoon rainfall in parts of East and Central India, likely leading to a shortfall in overall food and vegetable production. This could trigger higher prices, which existing reserves can only partially mitigate. Balancing the demands of domestic governance and responding to the pleas of distressed neighbours is a formidable challenge for India. Extending a hand to neighbours during a global economic crisis is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly.
Reports from Kathmandu and Dhaka suggest that policymakers are feeling the mounting tension among their citizens. Bangladesh’s Commerce Minister recently visited India with a list of urgent requirements, emphasizing the urgency of achieving food security before the polls, given the country’s volatile political landscape. As it stands, Nepal has requested India to supply at least 100,000 tonnes of rice, a million tonnes of paddy, and 50,000 tonnes of sugar. Bangladesh, on the other hand, seeks to import substantial quantities, including 1,500,000 tonnes of rice, 1,000,000 tonnes of sugar, and 2,600,000 tonnes of wheat, along with other essential items. While Indian officials have conveyed the difficulties of exporting such vast quantities of food grains given India’s own circumstances, they have reaffirmed India’s commitment to standing by its neighbours in times of need.