Herald View: Government’s wishful thinking on high prices
The nonchalance of Govt and the ministers on rising prices is callous. Having turned a deaf ear to criticism on the issue till now, it is unlikely that the Govt will behave any better in Parliament
It is breath taking to look back at what Union Ministers have been saying on rising prices. Piyush Goyal had famously claimed in 2019 to have broken the back of high inflation; and the present Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said barely six months ago in December that she was not unduly perturbed because rising food and oil prices were seasonal.
The outgoing Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan was always hard put to explain high fuel prices and he must be credited for coming up with imaginative explanations. He initially made light of rising petrol and diesel prices caused, he claimed, because oil producing countries had cut down on production following a slump in demand.
Consumption of fuel had slumped in India as well but he offered no explanation why prices continued their march northwards. He then blamed the high prices on the pandemic and asserted that it was all because the Government needed money to feed 80% of the population. That was the closest he came to admitting that the Government was making money.
His laboured explanation however prompted several BJP leaders to wax eloquently on health benefits of walking and cycling compared to riding on fuel-guzzling vehicles. Pradhan finally blamed the previous UPA government for the high prices because it had ostensibly floated oil bonds. His successor Hardeep Singh Puri fended off questions after taking charge last week. As a trained diplomat, he quipped, he would not comment on the issue until he was fully briefed.
A week since then, he is yet to break his silence. The Prime Minister of course prefers to speak to athletes on how they trained before this month’s Olympic Games than on rising prices. It is astonishing indeed to see this entire lot of BJP leaders, who were so vocal against high prices before 2014, lose their vocal cord on the subject after 2014.
The nonchalance of the Government and the ministers on prices is callous. Millions of Indians have lost their jobs and millions more have had their wages cut. But the Finance Minister seems to believe that both consumption and demand are going up causing supply bottlenecks and therefore pushing up prices. She does not seem inclined to accept the role played by high import duties, multiple and high GST rates and ever-increasing central excise and cess on fuel in pushing up prices.
Having turned a deaf ear to criticism and street protests on the issue till now, it is unlikely that the Government will behave any better in Parliament and allow a reasoned discussion on the subject. It is quite possibly futile to expect it to lay out a road map of what it plans to do. The nonchalance bordering on indifference may have something to do with the Government having perfected the art of neutralising high prices as an electoral issue.
The silence of the mainstream media, especially television channels, may also have contributed along with repressive policies to instil fear. But then neither silence nor denial can gloss over the hardship and pain of the common man. There is growing evidence of distress and hunger in the northern states.
The growing crisis is giving rise to desperate and daring criminal activities, some of which are getting reported in the media. Over one hundred thousand private schools charging moderate fees have reportedly shut down because of unpaid tuition fees. The crisis is real and high prices not a phantom. What are people going to eat is a question that can no longer wait for an answer.