Saturday, May 21, 2011

End of fertilizer price decontrol?

It was with great fanfare that the Government of India launched the Nutrient Based Subsidy (NBS) regime for fertilizers in April 1, 2010. It effectively dismantled the administrative control over fertilizer prices. The subsidy was to be fixed, based on the nutrient content of each fertilizer, and then transferred as a back-end subsidy to the manufacturing companies. It gave companies full freedom to fix Maximum Retail Prices (MRPs), though there was an informal understanding to keep price hikes within 'acceptable' limits.

It went off relatively well in its first year, raising hopes of further reforms in the subsidy regime. However, following the steep increases in global petroleum prices in recent months, the wheels seem to be coming off the NBS regime. The manufacturers have been left with no option but to increase the MRP to cover for the increased import prices. As I have blogged earlier, in response the government has been forced into revising the subsidy for 2011-12 three times already.

Faced with continuing rise in fuel prices, the Government has issued directions to the fertilizer companies to restrict the MRP increases to a band. The Businessline points to a recent circular issued by the Department of Fertilisers asking firms to limit the increase in the MRP of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) to Rs 600 a tonne for the kharif season ahead. It writes,

"Since the MRP, prior to April 1, averaged Rs 10,750 a tonne, a Rs 600 rise works out to Rs 11,350 a tonne. To this, if the 1.03 per cent excise-cum-education cess imposed in the 2011-12 Union Budget is added — this is recoverable from farmers — the new admissible MRP would be roughly Rs 11,470. Against this, companies like Coromandel International, Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative and Zuari Industries have already declared MRPs of Rs 11,700 to Rs 12,000 a tonne, exclusive of State-level and local levies. It remains to be seen if they will now have to roll back their MRPs to the May 5 circular-prescribed levels."

The NBS regime for fertilizers is a test case for cash transfers with PDS. It highlights the challenges in subsidy administration posed by price volatility. However, unlike the fragmented food grains markets, fertilizer market is more integrated. Therefore it is possible to develop an index, also linked to global crude prices, that is a reasonable reflection of fertilizer prices. The subsidy payable to manufacturers or distributors could be calibrated with respect to this index, so as to avoid the repeated ad-hoc revisions. This does create a slight fiscal uncertainty, though the variation is not likely to be so much as to imbalance government finances.

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