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The price of survival

columns Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:38 IST
Pankaj Vohra
Pankaj Vohra
Hindustan Times
Pankaj Vohra

The Union budget may provide the UPA government one last chance to redeem itself. It is also perhaps the biggest challenge before the most-experienced finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and one of the top economists, Manmohan Singh, to prove that they are capable of living up to expectations without using too much financial jargon.

It is common belief that the plight of the central government would not have been so bad if it had been able to control rising prices. The government failed to explain through its political constituents the reasons for the high prices of essential commodities and took far too long to hold a Cabinet meeting on this issue.

This showed a lack of seriousness on the part of the UPA. Instead of addressing the issue, some elements in the Congress started shifting the blame to senior minister Sharad Pawar as if he alone was responsible for the mess. It was forgotten that it is the collective responsibility of the Cabinet to resolve such issues. If Pawar was so inefficient, why was he not shifted from or dropped from the ministry? It could have been the “compulsions of coalition politics’’. But in this case Pawar was willing to give up some responsibilities after he became head of the International Cricket Council (ICC).
The Economic Survey, released on Friday, projected a near double-digit growth rate for the coming financial year. While taking note of inflation it hopes that the government will be able to come to grips with the ground reality. The government must understand that growth rate and Sensex figures are all very fine but the common man won’t be satisfied until he gets his essential items at a reasonable price.

The state governments also have a role to play so far as the public distribution system (PDS) goes. The PDS is in a shambles in most states. In other words, even the best schemes of the government can’t be implemented in both letter and spirit if the benefit does not reach the common man.

The Congress and its allies had come to power on the strength of standing up for the aam aadmi. However, what has happened is that not only is the disparity between the rich and poor increasing but affordability is also becoming a major problem. From the poor to fixed income groups, everyone is finding it difficult to make ends meet.

The silver lining is that the current finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, is from the Indira Gandhi era when ‘garibi hatao’ was the thrust. He had presented budgets in the early 80s during difficult days. He is also the most seasoned politician in Parliament. So expectations of him are high. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had steered the country’s economic situation during trying times when we had reached bankruptcy and mortgaged our gold reserves to bail ourselves out. He may be an amateur in politics but he is very sound on finance.

Between the two, they have to figure out how to pull India out of its present price rise crisis. If they succeed, many other issues that have tarnished the image of this government will recede into the background. Essential items must be made available at reasonable rates. This is the least one expects. Otherwise Iqbal’s famous couplet may serve a warning: “Jis khet se dahkan to mayassar na ho roti (rozi) us khet ke har khoshaye gandum ko jalado, utho meri duniya ke garibon ko jaga do’’ (What is the use of a field which cannot feed those who plough it? It is better to burn every inch of such a crop. Wake up the poor who live in my world).

The government must make sure that such a scenario does not come to pass. Between us.