South Asia frets over high food prices

NEW DELHI, October 4, 2009 (AFP) – Ambika Biswas looks at her grocery bag and winces. She is buying food for her family in one of New Delhi’s cheapest markets — yet her grocery costs are far higher than last year. Her maid’s income of 5,000 rupees (104 dollars) a month supports her two teenage children and jobless husband.

“These prices go up and up,” Biswas, 54, said disbelievingly as she was shopping for India’s most important Hindu festival season.

Across South Asia, the refrain is the same.

“We’re getting less and paying more,” Biswas said.

Biswas, at least, is relatively well-off in Indian terms with a regular job and employers that help her with extra food and clothes.

But hundreds of millions of India’s poorer masses are struggling with having to pay more for food.

“They substitute two meals for one or go without,” said Devinder Sharma, who chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security.

Hit by the lowest monsoon rains since 1972 that have left rice, sugar cane and groundnut crops to shrivel under a hot sun, food prices have soared.

Prices for food basics have shot up as a result of the drought which has reduced farm yields, lead