Food minister Sharad Pawar on Saturday made his bluntest comment yet on rising prices. "As agriculture minister," he said, "I am responsible for five commodities — wheat, rice, pulses, oilseeds and sugar. I don’t decide tomatoes, onions or lady fingers."
He also said it was "not right to blame the agriculture ministry for the price rise". He sought to deflect the responsibility, saying, "Policies to control inflation are discussed and formulated at the highest level involving participation of the prime minister and finance minister."
Cornered over rising food prices, the Congress and the NCP, its ally, have made veiled attacks at each other recently.
On January 11, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi had said that previous Congress regimes controlled inflation more effectively because they were free from "coalition compulsions". The NCP - headed by Pawar - snapped back, saying the comments were an "injustice" to the party.
"The responsibility of agriculture ministry is to see adequate production of wheat, rice, sugar and oilseeds is taking place in the country. Now we have stocks for the next two to three years. In India, wheat, rice and sugar are cheaper compared to other countries," Pawar said.
As Pawar said, food inflation, which is at 16.9%, remains entrenched in a clutch of items such as vegetables, milk and eggs - in contrast to the stable prices of wheat, rice and lentils. Unlike wheat or rice, vegetables and fruits are not procured and held in public stocks, but the agriculture ministry does manage these commodities.
Ministry agencies, such as the National Horticulture Research and Development Foundation, and schemes such as the National Horticulture Mission directly oversee their production, demand and supply.