End of the week reading list: 6th Nov, 2020

The NYT comes up with a lovely selection of Agatha Cristhie novels. Light Diwali vacation reading if you are new to her works, perhaps?
(Also, every time I am reminded of this book below, I feel this urge to apologize to that one friend I inadvertently revealed the ending to – so once again, I’m really sorry!)

That would be “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” the story of a wealthy man slain in his study less than a day after the woman he hoped to marry commits suicide. Although — as Hercule Poirot discovers — the dead man’s assorted friends, relatives and servants have reasons to wish him ill, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” will still leave you reeling. When you find out who the murderer is and begin leafing through the pages, looking for missed clues, you’ll realize just how completely Christie snookered you.


On the race to redesign sugar:

As public opinion turns against sugar, food companies have outdone one another in pledges to cut the quantities of it that appear in their products. Pepsi has promised that by 2025 at least two-thirds of its drinks will contain a hundred calories or fewer from added sweeteners. A consortium of candy companies, including Mars Wrigley, Ferrero, and Russell Stover, recently declared that by 2022 half of their single-serving products will contain at most two hundred calories per pack. Nestlé has resolved to use five per cent less added sugar by the end of this year—though, as of January, it still had more than twenty thousand tons of the stuff left to eliminate.


A short (and delightful) history of mashed potatoes:

During the Seven Years War of the mid-1700s, a French army pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussian soldiers. As a prisoner of war, he was forced to live on rations of potatoes. In mid-18th century France, this would practically qualify as cruel and unusual punishment: potatoes were thought of as feed for livestock, and they were believed to cause leprosy in humans. The fear was so widespread that the French passed a law against them in 1748.


The excerpt below was an excerpt in the post I am linking to (if you see what I mean), but well worth your time, the entire blog post:

70% of us think that the average household income of the top 1% is more than ₹2.5L. In fact, a majority of us guess it is more than ₹5L. Similarly, a majority of the respondents assume that the average income of the top 10% of households is more than a ₹1L… We think of the top 1% as super-rich people. A majority of the respondents estimate that all of the top 1% have 4-wheelers. And 70+% feel that at least 90% of the top 1%-ers have 4-wheelers.


Robin Hanson wonders about taking rest:

While we seem to “need” breaks from work, many of our break activities often look a lot like “work”, in being productive and taking energy, concentration, and self-control. So what exactly is “restful” about such “rest”?


Notes on being Aatmanirbhar in Agriculture

The full title of the article is “Aatmanirbhar in agriculture will require incentives for export of high-value agri-produce” and it has been written by Ashok Gulati.

One may ask: What does Aatma Nirbhar Bharat mean? Is it self-reliance or self-sufficiency in all essential items?


If you are confused about the difference between self-reliance and self-sufficiency, here is Swaminathan Aiyar in ET:

Self-reliance means making your own economy strong and strong does not mean giving it crutches like protectionism. That is the wrong way. Self-reliance means we say, look I am uncompetitive because I have relatively high cost of land or labour, high interest rates, high electricity rates and high freight rates. If I get all these down, I become more competitive. So if you are going in that direction, India will become strong and competitive. It will be able to trade in the world and we will not have a trade deficit problem. So the correct self-sufficiency means you strengthen your economy by making it more productive and more low cost. It does not mean you make it high cost by putting up tariffs. Therefore, protecting your least productive industry is the wrong direction.


The consensus among economists seems to be that we should be targeting self-reliance rather than self-sufficiency, but I would say that it is one thing to debate which to aim for without being explicit and crystal clear about what each of these terms mean.

You might want to read this Wikipedia article about the issue. Also, a request: if any of you have articles about the distinction, and any clear articulation about India’s policy stance in this regard, I would love to read it.

It is presumed that for a large country like India, with a population of 1.37 billion, much of the food has to be produced at home. We don’t want to be in a “ship to mouth” situation, as we were in the mid-1960s.


You might want to read about the following if you are unfamiliar with our “ship to mouth” situation: the sorry saga of the PL480 scheme and India (two separate links)

In the mid-1960s, if India had spent all its foreign currency reserves — the country had about $400 million — just on wheat imports, it could have imported about seven million tonnes (mt) of wheat. Today, India has foreign exchange reserves of more than $500 billion.


A question that is rarely asked – or at least, not asked as often as I would like it to be asked – is how did we get to a stage where we have more than $500 billion in reserves? We must have earned it, we obviously can’t print dollars. Which begs the question, how did we earn it? Two things: we depreciated our exchange rate, and we exported a helluva lot more post 1991. Self-sufficiency, in other words, tends to not work well!

Chart from the IE article

Agri-exports have been subdued for the last six years or so, and we have yet to recover the peak of the ear 2013-2014. As Ashok Gulati mentions in his article, that year’s performance has not been bettered since.

What do our exports look like currently?

Marine products with $6.7 billion exports top the list, followed by rice at $6.4 billion (basmati at $4.6 billion and common rice at $2.0 billion), spices at $3.6 billion, buffalo meat at $3.2 billion, sugar at $2.0 billion, tea and coffee at $1.5 billion, fresh fruits and vegetables at $1.4 billion, and cotton at $1 billion.


Of which, Prof. Gulati picks rice and sugar for analysis – $8.4 billion worth of exports in total. Now, here is where all of what you may have learnt in microeconomics starts to make sense.

Think of a farm producing rice. The production function will tell you that you produce rice by combining inputs to produce output. What inputs? Labor, land – but also water and fertilisers. And the problem with fertilisers and water is that it is heavily, heavily subsidised in India.

Again, microecon 101: whatever isn’t priced tends to be overused, and that too indiscriminately. So what happens when you export more rice and more sugar every year? Well, to export more you have to produce more, and to produce more you have to use more inputs, and when you use inputs inefficiently, you end up exporting that input in larger quantities than is optimal.

Or, the simple version: we are exporting a lot of our water when we export sugar and rice. We’re also polluting our rivers and our soil, but that’s a story for another day.

But more importantly, it is leading to the virtual export of water as one kg of rice requires 3,500-5,000 litres of water for irrigation, and one kg of sugar consumes about 2,000 litres of water. So, in a sense, the two crops are leading to a faster depletion of groundwater in states such as Punjab, Haryana (due to rice) and Maharashtra (due to sugar). Thus, quite a bit of the “revealed comparative advantage” in rice and sugar is hidden in input subsidies. This leads to increased pressure on scarce water and a highly inefficient use of fertilisers.


What about the other side of the story – which is the big ticket item when it comes to imports of agricultural goods?

On the agri-imports front, the biggest item is edible oils — worth about $10 billion (more than 15 mt). This is where there is a need to create “aatma nirbharta”, not by levying high import duties, but by creating a competitive advantage through augmenting productivity and increasing the recovery ratio of oil from oilseeds and in case of palm oil, from fresh fruit bunches.


And within oils, Prof. Gulati recommends increasing our productivity in oil palm:

This is the only plant that can give about four tonnes of oil on a per hectare basis. India has about 2 million hectares that are suitable for oil palm cultivation — this can yield 8 mt of palm oil. But it needs a long term vision and strategy. If the Modi government wants “aatma nirbharta” in agriculture, oil palm is a crop to work on.


And on a related note, you may want to read this article from Scroll, an excerpt from which is below:

It is now clear that, in the face of rising demand, domestic production will remain way under 10% in the years to come. That essentially means that India will continue to import palm oil in various forms. However, the dynamics of imports is not just dictated by demand but also geopolitics. For instance, diplomatic tensions with Malaysia led the Indian government to discourage imports of refined palm oil from the Southeast Asian nation, resulting in a precipitous fall in recent months.
Domestic palm oil processors, such as millers and refiners, also routinely demand restrictions on imports so they can protect their margins. The Solvent Extractors’ Association of India recently presented the government with a list of demands that would favour local processors. This puts further price pressures in Malaysia and Indonesia, making it more difficult to green the palm oil supply chain.