Monday, January 17, 2011

India doesn’t know its onions

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a time, not all that long ago, when it was obligatory for all the London correspondents of Indian newspapers to write potted accounts of each report on India in the mainstream newspapers. Those were the days the country was either in need of testimonials or in constant search of 'imperialist conspiracies' to undermine India. Since testimonials were few and far between—how many times could the Fleet Street hack in the tropics write about Mother Teresa, the Ambassador car and the enduring charms of a long railway journey?—the focus was on detecting which newspaper was more 'anti-India' than the other. It was a silly game India House encouraged and the babus and ministers in Shastri Bhavan lapped up enthusiastically.

Things have changed. The internet has made the 'Report of Foreign Newspapers on India' quite redundant. But more to the point, there are few negative stories these days. Most visiting or resident Brits are so awe-struck by India's new prosperity and so depressed by the corresponding decline of the old 'mother country' that they gloss over apparent shortcomings. Also, there is always a fear that a judgmental report on venal and crazy natives may attract the displeasure of the professional multi-culturalists. In any case, when it comes to criticism by foreigners, Indians tend to be remarkably thin skinned. These days, with the swagger of new-found prosperity, Indians also tend to respond to even the mildest criticisms with insufferable conceit and arrogance.

This maybe the reason that a suggestion I made on Twitter to read Boris Johnson's "Let's show booming India that we know our onions" (Daily Telegraph, January 10) drew many snide comments. I find the Mayor of London a complete scream and wish that all politicians could be like him. But I do admit that Boris' humour is also, like British institutional food, an acquired taste—for a sample, see his speech on the origins of ping-pong on YouTube and note particularly the bewilderment of Gordon Brown.

Yet Boris was not being wilfully funny when he drew attention to something very curious he found during his short break in Mumbai last week: that onions in Indian cities cost more than they do at the local Tesco supermarkets in London. In London, onions are the equivalent of Rs 45; last week they were selling for anything between Rs 60 and Rs 70 in urban India.

Boris's characteristic suggestion to the problem was to export British onions to India. This may be taken with large helping of Tata-produced salt but there is some merit in viewing the absurd levels of food inflation in India with a generous measure of black humour.

I refer in particular to the Government's short-term measures to check the soaring prices. Apart from the legitimate strategy of importing truckloads of onions from across the Radcliffe Line, these include selling onions at Rs 35 through Government-run Kendriya Bhandars and getting NAFED to sell onions through mobile vans. Other measures include 'strict' vigilance at wholesale markets and even income tax raids on errant 'hoarders and black marketers'.

Forgive me for nurturing an enormous sense of déjà vu. Throughout the early-1970s when Indira Gandhi's garibi hatao collapsed under the rubble of socialist mismanagement, it was routine for All India Radio to provide details of 'stringent action' against 'hoarders and black marketers', many of whom were arrested under MISA (the precursor to TADA). Some of the more populist Chief Ministers even had a few of these 'hoarders and black marketers' paraded through the streets with ropes tied around their waist.

There are template solutions to problems that have withstood the transition from the licence-permit raj to the free market. In the 1970s too, 'essential items' were to be sold at 'fair prices' from Government-run outlets. To prevent hoarding and 'profiteering', shops were instructed to prominently display their stocks of 'essential items' on huge blackboards. Hapless retailers spent a lot of energy trying to keep the stock taking exercise as up-to-date as possible; lots of money was also spent greasing the palms of inspectors who conducted spot checks.

Then there were the so-called Government-run outlets that would bypass the greedy lala. This was the brainchild of Indira Gandhi and her advisers after the 1966 devaluation that sent prices sky-rocketing. In an attempt to lessen consumer hardship, she decided to establish a huge Super Bazar at the point where Shankar Market met Connaught Circus. It was India's first socialist department store—before Independence the gigantic Army & Navy and Hall & Anderson were landmarks in Calcutta and Bombay—and I remember it as the place where bills were always made in triplicate.

The whole exercise was conceptually flawed. It was based on the principle: what I don't see is not my problem. The idea that one mega-Super Bazar (and some extension counters) in Delhi and perhaps a few metros would be enough to dampen prices was absurd, if not laughable. But these are precisely the absurdities of trying to superimpose state structures on a market mechanism.

For too long, inefficient and leaky institutions such as NAFED have been entrusted the responsibility for agricultural trade. The statist approach just doesn't work. It is time to allow the free market to come into play in agricultural trade. Only then can we buy onions at a rate cheaper than what prevails in British supermarkets. India must discard the old, socialist templates.

Sunday Pioneer, January 16, 2011

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