Assam's galloping price rise has been influenced by arbitrary decisions and an all important state minister. Monalisa Gogoi reports.
MONALISA GOGOI | New Delhi, November 29, 2013 14:54 Tags :
Assam |Nazrul Islam |Assam BJP |Sarbananda Sonowal |Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti |Akhil Gogoi |Chief minister Tarun Gogoi |
Assam’s inflation is a bit different from the rest of India. Opposition leaders say the complete trust reposed by state chief minister Tarun Gogoi in his food and civil supplies minister Nazrul Islam and the wide mandate given to him has led to much seen artificial scarcity, a cause singularly responsible for galloping inflation of essential commodities in the state.
President of Assam BJP, Sarbananda Sonowal hits out at the CM and his minister, claiming: "Food and civil supplies minister Nazrul Islam and chief minister Tarun Gogoi are the main culprits for the price hike of essential commodities like onion, potato and artificial scarcity of salt. The unholy nexus between traders and ruling party politicians has led this unreasonable inflation.’’
Further, cooperatives in Assam say it is a bit strange that the department under Nazrul Islam has refused to take cognizance of their offer to sell essential commodities and vegetables at less than what is available in the open market. "If Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) can sell potato and onion at cheap rates, why has the government failed to accept their offer? Let the state give us Rs one crore without any interest and we will control the entire vegetable market and keep a steady supply at reasonable prices,’’ says KMSS president Akhil Gogoi.
This is also particularly surprising after minister Islam threw up his hands up saying prices of potato and onions could not be controlled and that the government had no mechanism to keep a handle on them. But post his declaration, the KMSS had proved true to its word: it had supplied onion and potato at the rate of Rs 21 and Rs 50 per kg respectively. That has what put the government in a spot.
Opposition leaders have strongly protested artificial scarcity of the essential commodities which they blame shopkeepers for simply because the supply department has no control over the market and there are many vested interests at play.
Though the price of onions – after a statewide and a corresponding nationwide furore – has now dropped down to Rs 45 and potatoes to Rs 17 per kg in the wholesale market, open market rates remain the same. Observers say it just reveales that the government has no control over the retail market. "Retail shopkeepers are able to maintain their monopoly,’’ says Ratul Dutta, lecturer at a local college.
Chief minister Gogoi is getting it bad from all quarters for his unstinting support to Islam, whatever the consequences. President of Guwahati Senior Citizens’ Association and editor of local daily `Sankarjyoti’, Dhirendra Nath Chakrabarty, says "the situation has come to this pass only because Tarun Gogoi has given a free hand to supply minister Nazrul Islam, who in turn is close to black marketers because of the hefty commissions involved.’’
Chakrabarty points out that they have consistently stressed the need for reviving the Grahak Suraksha Sangsthan, a prominent NGO, which had played a commendable role from 1987 to 2001 but now stands ignored and withered. Adds writer Atulananda Goswami, "the retail market is targeting common customers as they are used to making more than three times the profit. They do not care if people are horrified and struggle with galloping inflation. The other important thing is that locals in Assam are not conscious and most of the times do not even ask the shopkeeper about prices.’’
In Assam, thanks to this combination of complicity and naiveté, artificial scarcity has spread to salt and eggs as well. The man-made scarcity of salt led to a total trade of 6,50,000 kg of salt in the state. "I bought 12 packets of salt at the rate of Rs 100 per kg.The declaration made by the state government that there was no salt scarcity, not surprisingly therefore, led to an abrupt rise in its prices. Likewise, eggs cost Rs 3.50 at the wholesale market while it stood at Rs 6 in the retail outlet. We are citizens of such a country where corruption and black money is rampant so most people do not care about inflation,’’ avers Prafulla Barua, a senior citizen from capital Guwahati.
As a comparison, he points to West Bengal. "The people of neighbouring West Bengal are so conscious and their chief minister (Mamata Banerjee) so alert that potatoes are selling at Rs 10 a kg,’’ Barua points out.
Assam is also hampered by lack of cold storage facilities and other related infrastructure and is seen as the main reason for the unprecedented price hike of essential commodities this year. Says Assam’s agriculture minister Nilamoni Sen Deka, "From the coming year we will start potato and onion cultivation and this will help our cultivator.’’ Such comments sound too casual, short term and bereft of any long term plans. Whatever the reasons and look at it any way, the ruling Congress has failed to control the market.
But inflation and the lack of control has its own spin off. With general elections slated next year, the Congress is aware that it has to watch its back. Admittedly the main opposition party Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) is a shadow of its past self, but with other little regional entities wanting to muscle in, the ruling party does not want to take a chance.
It is with keeping this in mind that the state government announced a 10 percent hike in dearness allowance (DA) from 80 to 90 percent for its staff. It came in the wake of a similar increase affected by the central government for its employees. This, chief minister Tarun Gogoi believes, will temporarily keep the wolves away from peoples’ doors