Sunday, April 20, 2014
   
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Indians will soon find survival difficult

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A time seems to have come when people should give up cooking. A recent report said that a domestic LPG cylinder is soon going to cost Rs. 996/- (around $20), virtually a thousand rupees, for those who have an income of more than six hundred thousand rupees ($12000 app.) per annum. The Standing Committee on the matters relating to petroleum ministry has made the recommendation indicating that those who are rich should not be supplied the subsidised LPG. For all one knows, the recommendation may even get accepted regardless of the fact that identification of those who are in receipt of the specified income is going to be a tough proposition. If implemented, only the salaried class would get trapped while others, who are professionals, traders and self-employed, etc. and have to declare their own incomes (which most don’t do entirely) are likely to continue to get subsidised LPG.

The scenario that is unfolding is quite frightful. As the rupee continues to lose value vis-a-vis` the dollar one cannot really imagine where all it is going to end up. In another year or two a LPG cylinder could hit Rs. 2000/- taking it well beyond the reach of many. With the growing trade gap, rising fiscal deficit, astronomical sums poured into the social sector (mostly siphoned off) and flight of foreign investment from the country things have gone from bad to worse. Dollars have become so scarce in the foreign exchange market that the currency has been constantly appreciating against the rupee – one of the major factors which has made prices of petro-products go through the roof.

LPG has been the standard domestic fuel for the last few decades and has been instrumental in changing urban lifestyle. Modern Indian kitchens are not made for the kind of fuel that, for example, my mother used to use – soft coke, fire wood and cow-dung cakes. Besides, they have disappeared from most cities and towns. Unfortunately, for an urban household currently there is no alternative to LPG except electricity as energy source. That, too, has been becoming expensive virtually every year. With the distribution companies unable to check persistent power theft and the prevailing rampant corruption in their ranks power tariffs are hiked annually. Using electrical appliances of high-wattage is, therefore, beyond the reach of many middle-class households. One could perhaps tap solar power but not all houses get enough sunshine. In rural areas women and children forage around for fire wood, dried twigs or whatever, being unable to afford even the subsidised LPG. Only the rural rich now can afford kerosene or LPG. Soon they too may have to give them up as the government progressively loosens its hold over fuel pricing.

Cooking food at home may soon become a thing of the past. That will be a great tragedy. Indians cannot do without food cooked at home. Besides, influenced as they have been over hundreds of years by different cultures, the recipes are such that food has to be cooked in oil and fried with colourful and aromatic spices. Every meal, from breakfast to lunch and from afternoon snacks to dinner, has to be cooked. If cooking fuel becomes unaffordable, Indians wouldn’t know what to do. Very few Indians can survive on raw vegetables or processed meats. In fact, in many regions of the south and the east none would ever have raw vegetables barring tomatoes and onions. Westerners, perhaps, can manage with their salads and mass-produced cold cuts, but not Indians.

Then, there is another emerging problem. Even if one is able to somehow manage the fuel the question that remains is what does one cook – prices of everything edible having gone impossibly high? Prices of edible oil and vegetables, for instance, are sky high. Prices seldom come down even in the season when availability peaks. What is more, there are hardly any seasonal vegetables now which, in season, used to be cheap. Every vegetable, whether of summer or winter, is available right through the year. Hence one finds okra in winter and cauliflowers in summers – thanks to advancement in horticulture and a little more easy availability of cold-storage facilities. But prices always rule high despite the fact that India is one of the top producers of vegetables in the world. According to the figures of the Ministry of Agriculture India is at the top of the world in production of peas, second in production of aubergines, cabbages, cauliflowers and onions and third in potatoes and tomatoes. Yet, the prices rule high because of the middlemen and the evil of cartelisation. While middlemen push up the prices of all food items –vegetables, lentils and food grains – cartels don’t allow the prices to come down. Farmers and consumers are at the receiving end of their intervention.

Some farmers, however, have become smart. They have taken to injecting chemicals into vegetables to ripen them quickly to get a better turnover. That, in the process, they inject toxins which, on ingestion, could be a health hazard is of no concern to them. This aberration is of recent origin but has continued unchecked for want of effective governance. Likewise, colouring agents and sweeteners are routinely injected in fruits like papayas, watermelons, melons, pomegranates, etc. Wellness-gurus recommend steady consumption of fruits and vegetables without realising that most of them carry contaminants that could prove to be toxic. In any case, the prices have shot up to such astronomical heights that they have become unaffordable for a large section of the population. Supplies may not be matching the demand, stimulated as it is by rising incomes but, if one goes by ads, fresh vegetables and fruits are also being increasingly used in manufacturing of cosmetics – moisturisers, fairness creams, feeding the craze for a fairer complexion. No wonder, even the lowly banana, once a fruit for penniless sadhus wandering in the wildernesses for moksha, are going for Rs.40/- a dozen.

Non-vegetarian stuff, too, has not remained behind. In a decade and a half mutton prices have shot up five fold, from Rs.60/- a kilo to Rs.300/- ($ 6). The same has been the case with fish and poultry. While fish could carry deadly heavy metals, poultry in many parts has been detected with heavy dosage of harmful antibiotics. Nonetheless, once again the rise of the middle classes has fuelled the demand that has further been stoked by television channels showing foodies cooking and gorging on non-vegetarian stuff. The way things are going, soon non-vegetarian food may become unaffordable for a vast segment.

The country has certainly witnessed rapid GDP growth. But, so have the prices of fuel and edibles risen exponentially in tandem. Largely a poor country, with widespread hunger and malnourishment, no wonder India is scraping the bottom of several international social sector indices.

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