Price-rise: Assault on Food and Livelihood of Aam Aadmi

Amidst record-breaking rise in food prices, the UPA government continues to shed crocodile tears. Worse, in the name of tackling prices, the government is trying to use rising prices as a pretext to shower more concessions on big capital. At the beginning of the Budget session of Parliament, President Pratibha Patil in her inaugural address held price rise to be “inevitable.” Earlier, in the meeting of Chief Ministers in Delhi on February 6, the Prime Minister called for advancing retail sector reforms to tackle the surge in retail prices – a clear hint to push for greater and faster corporatization of the retail sector.

The conference of Chief Ministers was preceded by a meeting of the Congress Working Committee in which the Congress blamed the Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar for ‘talking up’ prices. Pawar had invoked the doctrine of ‘collective responsibility’ of the UPA government for the failure to control prices; the Congress accuses him of creating a scare by talking of shortages. While the government thus plays its own little blame game, the fact remains that the problem of shortage is quite real, partly because of falling production and partly also because of unwarranted export, what to talk of aggravating factors like distribution bottlenecks and hoarding.

Take the case of sugar for example. Production is estimated at 16 million tonnes while consumption estimates are of the order of 23 million tonnes. Instead of trying to meet this shortfall by increasing production, the central government talks of launching nationwide campaign to dissuade consumption! “No one dies due to not eating sugar,” argues the NCP mouthpiece Rashtravadi, while in a key sugar-producing state like Bihar, where sugar mills are lying closed for years, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is interested only in opening sugar mills that will produce not sugar but Ethanol!

While prices have been rising continuously, the UPA government has been busy rationalizing it as a veritable feature of economic growth, hoping to silence all inflation-related worries by invoking the loud rhetoric of double-digit growth. The statistical practice of measuring inflation through movements of Wholesale Price Index (WPI) has also helped the government in understating the real impact of inflation. In WPI, food and primary articles have a weightage of only 22%, which is just a third of the importance assigned to manufactured items. Thus, a near 20% rise in food price index remained conveniently hidden throughout the last one year in WPI increases of the order of 6-7%.

But this grim reality can no longer be hidden under any statistical carpet. Over the 52-week period ending on January 23, 2010, the composite food price index rose 17.56% while prices of potatoes and pulses rose by nearly 45%. The impact of this steep rise in food prices is felt all the more acutely by people with low and even moderate income who spend a high proportion of their earnings to buy food. For the 800 million people identified by the Arjun Sengupta committee with a daily expenditure of Rs. 20 or less, a near 20% rise in food prices can only mean a push to severe malnutrition and semi-starvation. To add insult to injury, Congress leaders would have us believe that the rise in prices is due primarily to increased mass consumption resulting from increased purchasing power of the rural poor and the peasantry! Even the President’s address claimed that the higher prices reflected the success of “our schemes of inclusive growth” involving payment of higher procurement prices and supposed “higher public spending on programmes of rural development, which have successfully raised incomes in rural areas.”

The least that a government must do in the face of such a severe crisis is to ensure delivery of subsidized food and other primary articles of mass consumption to the needy. Yet, large numbers of the poor find themselves excluded from the BPL list, and the rations meant for BPL families are often diverted to the open market with the government looking the other way. Meanwhile, even as the country awaits the 2010 annual budget, the Kirit Parikh panel appointed by the government to examine fuel pricing has recommended a hike of Rs. 100 per LPG cylinder and Rs. 6 per litre of kerosene oil and freeing of petrol and diesel prices in tune with international standards!

Far from trying to check price-rise and mitigate its impact on the aam aadmi, the UPA government is working hand in glove with the market to wage an all-out price war on the people. We must resist this assault by all means and fight for the people’s basic right to food and livelihood with all our might.

Liberation Archive