'We can't live without Indian atta'

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

The festive season has begun and Ms Nancy Bhargava is in a fix. The housewife, who hails from New Delhi, does not have enough chakki atta (wholemeal wheat flour originating in the Indian subcontinent) to make dishes and sweets to celebrate Navaratri and the upcoming Deepavali.

"I have about 2kg left, not enough to last a month," she told tabla!.

"I searched the minimarts and shops in my neighbourhood and elsewhere but there is absolutely no atta. It is difficult because I'll have guests but I cannot cook for them."

Atta is a staple for North Indians - the flour is needed to make roti (or chapati), paratha, poori, cakes and other sweets, which they eat regularly.

"What we prefer is atta made in India, especially brands like Aashirvad, Fortune Chakki, Ahaar, Nature Fresh Sampoorna and Pillsbury, because it is prepared through the traditional grinding process (chakki)," said author and community leader Rahul Singh, who hails from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh and has been living in Singapore for 17 years with this wife and son.

"It is unrefined and contains the grain components endosperm, bran and germ in their natural, original proportions. It is full of nutrition, tastes good and digests better."

There is a shortage of chakki atta in Singapore because India severely curtailed wheat grain exports in May to shore up national food reserves following global shortages and surging prices triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In July, it also imposed restrictions on the export of wheat flour in a fresh move to insulate domestic markets from a global wheat crisis.

Russia and Ukraine together account for almost a quarter of the global wheat supply but their ongoing war has disrupted the supply chain and caused a worldwide shortage - affecting Singapore too.

India, whose main cereal crop is wheat and is the world's second-biggest wheat producer after China, produced 109 million tonnes of wheat last year but exported only around 7 million tonnes.

A heatwave in March and April led to a drop of around 5 per cent in the wheat harvest, prompting fears of shortages in the domestic market.

Although India is not a major wheat exporter, the move to ban exports have unsettled global markets.

About three weeks ago, chakki atta in Singapore cost $1.30 per kilogram. Now the price has gone up to $17.80 for a 5kg pack - if you can find it.

"Last Sunday, I went to about 20 shops in Little India, including Mustafa Centre but there was no chakki atta," said Mr Singh.

"My friends are telling me that our favourite atta is almost impossible to get in Singapore now."

Ms Ujjwal Bedi, a talent advisory consultant who moved to Singapore from Amritsar, is a North Indian facing the same predicament.

"We can't live without Indian atta. We are a Punjabi household of five and going without roti for more than two days is unthinkable," she said.

"I never felt the need to stockpile it because it was always readily available. Going without atta for weeks is going to affect my mental health."

Ms Bedi has begun substituting some dishes with rice, but that is not helping her young son and daughter, who are demanding rotis and parathas.

"Both love paratha and want it at least once a day, but what to do? I have to look for something that offers a similar taste," she said.

"I'm ready to buy Indian atta at a higher price if it is available. It is a must for us. I'm ready to cut down on other things."

There is atta available in stores like FairPrice but these are made in countries like Indonesia and Thailand, which most North Indians don't want.

"These attas are not suitable for us," said Mr Rahul Mehndiratta, Omnicom Media Group business director who hails from New Delhi.

"Alternatives like maida are unhealthy. For the Navaratri festival period, we are trying healthier flour substitutes like ragi (finger millet), kuttu (buckwheat) and singhara (water chestnut)."

Maida is a white flour from the Indian subcontinent, made from just the endosperm of whole wheat grains. Finely milled without any bran, refined and chemically bleached, it closely resembles cake flour.

Full of calories, maida is used extensively for making prata, naan, fast food, baked goods, pastries, sweets and flatbread in Singapore.

"We are looking at the situation in a positive light and am sure we will be able to get hold of chakki atta soon," said Mr Mehndirtta.

"Anyway we are going to India during Deepavali and will bring back packs of atta."

Singapore imports 100,000-120,000 tonnes of wheat flour annually, according to data from the United Nations. In 2020, 5.8 per cent of Singapore's total wheat flour imports were from India, The Business Times reported.

The bulk of the imports are from Australia, the US and Canada. The Straits Times reported that more supply will be arriving in the coming weeks from countries such as Sri Lanka, Australia, Canada and the US.

But will the North Indians like it?

"We will have to try it and see," said Mr Singh. "I foresee a shortage of atta in Singapore for at least the next three weeks. Even if atta from Australia arrives, the prices will be higher. It will be a while before the situation stabilises."

India's Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal sounded positive when he was asked at a dinner meeting in Singapore last Saturday if India would resume exports of wheat flour soon.

"Because of severe bad weather in India (in February and March), normal foodgrain production was severely affected, especially in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh," he said. "But we assure you that we will not let you suffer for long."

 santosh@sph.com.sg

"I never felt the need to stockpile it because it was always readily available. Going without atta for weeks is going to affect my mental health."

- Ms Ujjwal Bedi

 
 
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