Launching a scathing attack on the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for its “failure” to check price rise, the Opposition today demanded a probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) into “scams” in essential commodities like wheat, rice, pulses and sugar.
“We demand a JPC to enquire into the scams in these four areas. It should find out why such decisions were taken (which led to these scams),” Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj said, initiating a debate in the Lok Sabha on the price situation.
She quoted a Bollywood film dialogue about ‘maal idhar se udhar karna’ (wheeling and dealing) and said, “The government is doing this and the matter should be investigated.”
Ms. Swaraj referred to the President’s address in which the government mentioned the decline in food production, rise in global prices, hike in support prices to farmers and increase in income in rural areas and said “these are not only baseless but far from truth”.
“The actual reasons are scams in wheat, rice, pulses and sugar and all these items are consumed by the vast majority of the poor,” the BJP leader said.
The special discussion followed two days of disruption of Parliament by the opposition which sought a debate on rules which entailed voting. However, the opposition later agreed to a discussion under Rule 193, which does not involve voting.
Deficit in foodgrain production less this year
Tearing into arguments that price rise was a result of drought, Arun Jaitley said the deficit in foodgrain production this year at 18 million tons was much less than the shortfall of 40 million tons in 2002 but the WPI (wholesale price index) inflation at 8.56 per cent was much more than 3.4 per cent that year.
Instead of blaming the futures market for rise in prices, he said, the government should have brought a policy change to reflect change from surplus economy to deficit.
Futures trading in foodgrains, which were launched by the NDA government, were experiments of the surplus economy which was no longer relevant, he said.
On the Centre blaming State governments for the price rise and not doing enough to crackdown on hoarders, he said the data provided by the Centre at the recent Chief Minister’s conference showed 83 per cent of raids and searches were conducted in non-UPA ruled States and 17 per cent in UPA-ruled States.
The lack of coordination was reflected when it was decided on February 15, that 10,000 tons of sugar would be exported to Europe despite a major sugar crisis in the country, he said, adding the order was withdrawn only after media outcry.
He said 9 lakh tons of sugar was waiting for processing at various ports and wanted to know if it would be used to flood the market to bring down prices.
Referring to the statement in the mouthpiece of NCP, the party to which Agriculture, Food and Consumer Affairs Minister Sharad Prawar belongs, that people will not die if they did not consume sugar because of its high prices, Mr. Jaitley said it displayed insensitiveness and amounted to ridiculing the misery of the people.
There is a “lack of seriousness,” he said.
Mr. Jaitley said 8.56 per cent WPI inflation is likely to reach double digits in the next month-and-a-half, a phenomenon witnessed 15 years ago.
“The government has to act. If the government cannot act, governments much perish,” he said. “Average citizen is almost driven to the wall.”
Bring in food price management policy: Jaitley
He wanted the government to come out with a food price management policy rather than being dependent on natural and international factors for cooling of inflation.
Mr. Jaitley said the economic slowdown last year, when jobs and salaries were cut, saw lesser money in the consumer’s pocket and prices coming down globally. But India saw rise in food prices.
“Has this government run out of ideas to deal with price rise? Yes, it has,” he said.
On oil prices, he said the present tax structure ensures that every increase in global oil cost enriches the government while the consumer is forced to pay extra.
The gulf between the Consumer Price Index WPI has widened as was evident when WPI turned negative while CPI was in double digits, he said, demanding a proper index reflective of ground realities on prices and services.
Rise in food prices has been discussed in every session of Parliament and the situation has worsened since the last debate in the winter session, he said.
K. Keshava Rao (Congress) said the price rise issue cannot be insulated from the world-wide phenomenon of economic slowdown.
No blame game
“There should not be any blame game over the issue. The situation should be seen from the point of view of global slowdown. Despite such pressures, our economy has come out relatively unscathed and the Prime Minister understands the situation. A holistic approach is needed to tackle the situation,” he said.
When Mr. Rao said prices will come down in three months as the government had controlled the situation well last time too, opposition members, mainly those of the BJP, protested saying the government has been claiming to control price rise since the last two sessions of Parliament.
He said the public distribution system needs to be strengthened to ensure supply of essential food items to the common man.
“Food supply line has to be strengthened and for this PDS needs to be streamlined. State governments should take stringent action against hoarders and black marketeers.
Greater coordination and collective action is needed to improve the situation,” he said.
He also said agriculture scientists should go to the fields and coordinate with farmers on how to improve the yield.