Monday, November 14, 2011

All cakes and no Bread in Aam Aadmi's diet/The Sunday Standard/November 13, 2011


All cakes and no bread in Aam Aadmi's diet

Abnormal responses to an abnormal situation can be justified. But how does one justify an abnormal response to a normal development? As poor and middle class India struggles with rising food prices, various well-spoken economists, foreign educated administrators and homegrown politicians have a bizarre explanation for the stratospheric prices of food grains. They don’t find fault with policies, the flawed distribution system or the absence of a regulatory mechanism. Instead, they sing the same tune, blaming the people for causing inflation by consuming more and changing food habits. A few samples.

> Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Cannes, November 8: “What prices are going up are those of vegetables, eggs, fish that are secondary and tertiary food items. That is a reflection of the demand for these commodities exceeding supplies... That in turn, to some extent at least, is a sign of growing prosperity of our country.”

> Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, November 3: “Food inflation is still going high. It’s dangerously above the double-digit figure. This is the effect of festive season demand. November onwards, the trend for the remaining four months (of the fiscal) would be available.”

> Chairman of Prime Minister’s Economic Panel, C Rangarajan, addressing the Economic Editors’ conference, New Delhi, October 20: “I believe that even if in this particular week, it (inflation) has risen, it will come down. I believe that the monsoon has an effect on the availability of food grains which you will see in months ahead.”

> Union Food Minister K V Thomas, October 29: “Food habits of people are changing. Their purchasing power is up. This is causing food inflation,” and added, “There is no inflation in foodgrains, it is in items like milk, poultry, meat and vegetables.”

The PM’s super-advisor on all economic issues, and Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia said, “High inflation number points towards people eating healthier food, better lifestyles.” From the PM to his food minister, all are trotting out the same reason, as if together, they have decided to blame aam aadmi for sabotaging their ‘Great India Growth Story’. None of them have, however, described the precise eating habits of Indians. Perhaps they themselves don’t know, a Congress functionary observed, since they rarely visit markets or get direct inputs from those who voted them to power. He raised an earthy question: “Have the PM, the finance minister or their colleagues changed their own eating habits?” Has the PM, a frugal eater, given up eating less fish and more continental food than before? Has the food minister given up appams or rice? If politicians are sticking to their conventional dishes, why should ordinary Indians eat anything else than what they been having for years? No ‘Breaking News’ on the 200-odd TV news channels has declared that now Indians are consuming only eggs, meat and green vegetables! The Press Information Bureau tells us that India had a record foodgrain production of 234 million tonnes in 2010-2011. We are also informed that India produces over 112 million tonnes of milk—the highest in the world. But the government’s publicity machinery doesn’t reveal the retail price of sugar has risen by 100 per cent in the past three years; wheat by 150 per cent; dal by 300 per cent and vegetables by 300 per cent. Fuel inflation is over 12 per cent thanks to 10 increases in fuel prices in 15 months.

Frankly, those who collect, collate and circulate official figures have no clue about the consumer basket. Over 90 per cent of Indians can’t afford poultry, meat, milk or green vegetables on a daily basis; if prices change dramatically, it will not affect them. If the government believes that high inflation is due to excessive demand for luxurious dishes, then it is dishing out wrong information, because retail prices of goods consumed by low-income groups have risen dramatically. Once this reality is reflected in the retail price index, the real food grain inflation may cross 25 percent. The `63,000-crore foodgrain subsidy is only helping the rich through leakage and patronage. The real cause behind food inflation is a skewed food policy that encourages hoarding, speculation and leakages.

Of course, the other excuse for rising food prices is the growing gap between demand and supply. This, again, is farcical. India has faced much worse food crises during the 1960s and 1970s, when lines appeared at ration shops. Not anymore. The number of people asking for foodgrain is more. But the pocket and stomach of the average Indian hasn’t swollen in size as much as the egos of the small leaders who rule India. The new elitist establishment looks at India through what happens in their personal lives. Their changing lifestyles and wishlists are spelling disaster for aam aadmi.

No comments: