Understanding inflation through papaya

Among all the fruits available in Mumbai markets, papaya is unarguably the most value for money. At Rs.20/kg, it is also the cheapest in market. Cheaper than most vegetables too. Tomato’s are Rs.24/kg, Carrots Rs. 40/kg and Capsicum (bell pepper) Rs.38/kg. It’s not just the price that makes papaya a good value for money though. Among fruits, papaya has managed to maintain a healthy hit-miss ratio when it comes to taste. My experience has been that 6 out of 10 papayas tend to be exceptional in quality, 3 tend to be average and 1 below average. I have never had a bad papaya in a few years now.

Another reason a papaya makes good value for money is the quantity. Half a papaya suffices someone like me as a complete breakfast. Dice up the remaining half and it lasts in the fridge for a couple of days making for a healthy snack. It’s no surprise then that my diet has been averaging 2 papayas a week. I had bought one just last Monday.

Today, a Friday, I happened to pass through a market and noticed a fruit vender stocked with some luscious looking papayas, so I had to stop. Upon enquiring he said Rs.30/kg. I flinched. I hoped that this vendor was trying to fleece me, knowing me not to be one of his usual customers. Generally the vendor offers a better price when you turn around. No such thing happened when I beat my retreat. I had to try with my regular fruit vendor next.

Luscious papaya.

A few blocks away it was the same story at my regular fruit vendor. I threw a genuinely puzzled look at him, the one every street vendor in Mumbai experiences countless times a day. ‘But I bought one from you just last Sunday for Rs.20?’ I protested. He coolly replied ‘The price was Rs.20/kg until just two days ago. Since yesterday it’s pegged at Rs.30’. ‘What happened?’ I asked in genuine bewilderment. ‘Ramzan happened’ he said.

The month of Ramzan had begun yesterday. There was nothing more left for me to say. The vendor meanwhile proceeded to explain all the very same reasons I have elaborated earlier on why Papaya made for such value for money during Ramzan. I listened patiently, nodded politely then shrugged and walked away. Since I had a musk melon (cantaloupe) and some plantains at home, papaya was not an urgent need of the day.

It got me wondering. Papaya’s were never really known for it’s demand among the Muslim community. Among my friends, most of them enjoyed watermelon, pomegranate, guava, apple, citrus and dried fruits. Even the lowly banana was preferred over papaya. Why is it then that suddenly papaya was being sought after so much. Well, there are many reasons. Watermelon has in recent times fallen into some disrepute on account of adulteration by injecting artificial colour and sweetness, also causing it to gain weight. The price of apple hovers in stratospheric reaches for the common folk. This is not really the season for guava so the quality of the ones that are available isn’t satisfactory. As for citrus, in spite of the bumper harvest past winter, hardly any good ones made into the market. The only time I bought some in the past season was 200kms away from Mumbai. And even those had the sticker of ‘Export Quality’ on them. Clearly, when it comes to global fruits like oranges, apples and strawberries, a quality harvest is a bane for local consumers.

Papaya has become the fall back fruit of choice. And now, with a 50% increase in it’s price overnight, even this is being steered out of the realm of common folks. I wonder who’s profiting here? Are the papaya cultivators reaping dividends on account of Ramzan or is it the wholesalers sitting atop a mountain of papayas dictating supply and inflating prices?

This anecdote is sufficient to explain the runaway inflation in India. Proponents of free market economy swear by the primitive concept of allowing supply and demand to calibrate a fair price for any commodity. What we are witnessing in India, and really in any growing economy, is this same concept at work but to the detriment of consumers. Fast and loose cash swishing around in the pockets of our urban populace represents the supply side and the commodity traders with their ever increasing appetite for this cash represents the demand side. When the equation itself is reversed the result is bound to be suspect. A fair price is difficult to come by under such brazen perversion of the concept.

Meanwhile, the government couldn’t be less concerned with an overnight 50% increase in the common man’s fruit. If only our honourable Union agriculture minister shopped for his fruits like I do.

13th August, 2010, Mumbai.

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