Neena Vengilla, who lives in St Louis in Missouri, US, wanted rice for dosa on Friday. Her husband Srikrishna went to the nearby grocery store and picked up organic rice costing $24 per 20 lb.

“I switched over to millets four years ago. We need rice only for dosa. I bought organic rice because people here don’t usually buy it in view of its price,” said Srikrishna. 

He is reminded of a similar queue for wheat last year when India banned its import. “People have now got used to Canadian wheat,” the non-resident Indian(NRIs), who went to the US in the 1990s, said. 

Ironically, Indian white rice now costs nearly $50 per 20 lb double the price of organic rice. “No one wants to touch red or mata or other such rice good for health,” Srikrishna says.

But not all NRIs have been as cool as the Vengillas. Thousands of expatriate Indians living in the US and Canada made a beeline at grocery stores and retail chains to buy rice soon after India imposed the ban on export of non-basmati white rice on Thursday evening.  

“Some stores are reporting a run on them after hundreds of Indians, particularly South Indians, are trying to get a few bags of rice in panic buying of rice,” Anusha (name changed) told businessline.

“The (export ban) news triggered a frenzy. And all of us duly joined (the frenzy),” Gangadhar, an NRI living in the United States said. 

NRIs from South India, who are fond of Sona Masuri variety of rice, are a worried lot. “It has caused panic,” a US-based Telugu NRI said, on the condition of anonymity.

“Probably, the Centre did not think of the millions living abroad. They all buy high-priced white rice varieties that cost over $600 a tonne,” says a New Delhi-based trader, who did not wish to be identified.

BV Krishna Rao, President, The Rice Exporters Association of India, said the Centre should consider bringing these specialised rice varieties such as Sona Masuri under a different HSN code and permit their exports. 

“We have established a farm in Africa that can produce rice such as Sona Masuri so that Indians abroad can consume,” said a trade consultant, who did not wish to identify.

Srikrishna said one of his cousins too has begun cultivating Indian premium rice varieties in Africa. On Saturday, social media was flooded with posts showing panic-stricken Indians muscling their way to buy rice stocks enough to last until the ban goes off.

“We wonder why Indians panic like this. This ban will be short-lived, maybe for six months at the most?” the trader said. 

Some NRIs criticised the panic buying and run-ons on the retail stores. “They can’t hoard rice. They should think of others,” said an angry NRI.

“Most NRIs in the US consume rice twice a day. They need biriyani,” he said. 

An NRI, who did not wish to identify, in the UK said usually, he gets to consume only rice from Pakistan. “It is difficult to find Indian rice in some places. Even if the package says it is India, one is not sure. It could have been from Pakistan but branded as India,” the NRI said. 

The Centre banned white rice exports early this week to cool off the double-digit rise in foodgrain prices and tardy progress in Kharif paddy sowing. It is also seen as a move to cool inflation with elections to the Lok Sabha hardly 10 months away.  

The move has resulted in rice prices surging in the global market. 

Reports suggest there has been a sharp surge in rice prices abroad. “A bag of 20 lb (about 9 kg) is now costing $46.99 against $15-16 till recently,” an NRI said, posting the image of a receipt for a 20-lb Godavari (sona masuri) rice bag.

The North American market, which includes the US and Canada, imported 64,330 tonnes of non-basmati rice from India in 2022-23. The two major diaspora markets of Gulf countries and Europe imported 6.95 lakh tonnes and 73,000 tonnes, respectively, from India last year. Overall, India exported 17.78 million tonnes of non-basmati rice in 2022-23 against 17.26 mt in the previous year.

(With inputs from Subramani Ra Mancombu, Chennai)

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