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From veggie shops to expressways: When will netas serve the people?

This is petty: a set of new outlets to sell vegetables in Mumbai at rates cheaper retail market rates that were supposed to have opened today won’t. The chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, away in his home town, Karad, “on tour” is not available to inaugurate them as planned.

The reason: it is an unspoken move to find favour with the voters for the elections to the state assembly and parliament in a matter of months. And if the steward cannot be at hand to claim credit, then what is the point in starting them to relieve the consumers’ burden? This is as stupid as it gets for a citizen – who, to a politician, is only a voter remembered as polls loom large – who is groaning under unprecedented price of the vegetables can and will acknowledge a government’s initiatives if they were useful. This calls for no trumpeting, does it?

But they have to do it, every time, and, with a dash of nonchalance.

By this one single act of political expediency, the intent has been bared. That the idea is only to harvest votes in likely tight contests than to help the consumer. If elections were not due within the year, the consumers would have been left to their own fates, and with bigger holes in their pockets.

Representational image

Representational image

When Chandrababu Naidu opened Rytu Bazaars – literally “farmers’ markets” where stalls are available on first-come first-served basis to the vegetable grower who fetches his produce to the market and sells to the consumers at prices on par with the nearest wholesale market, I commended the idea to Chhagan Bhujbal, the deputy chief minister.

Two youthful ministers then, Jayant Patil and Dilip Walse-Patil had earlier visited Hyderabad to study some of these initiatives but nothing much came of it. About Bhujbal’s indifference, a colleague journalist reminded me: His life had started as a vegetable wholesaler and he is unlikely to spring in favour of the consumer. There is sense in that, I suppose.

Recall how the Eastern Freeway’s inauguration – not the only example - was delayed for similar reasons? Awaiting the availability of political bigwigs, many a project’s foundation stone-laying ceremonies, and their dedication to the people’s use were held up even if they were executed with cost overruns.

Look around in your constituency and there will be no dearth of examples. In fact, India’s political, electoral and governance history is rife with such examples. During Indira Gandhi’s time the trend of setting foundation stones and doing nothing thereafter, began as a means of fooling the people. Others followed.

Let me illustrate this with two examples from Thane City where I live and am not amused by them. One was the announcement of a dedicated building for a multi-storeyed wholesale and semi-retail vegetable market by the civic body before last February’s civic polls. It would have helped the residents of the newer Thane a lot, but remains unopened for one reason or the other.

I suspect that since the newer parts of Thane have as many as eight big supermarkets and it is geographically located in its midst, putting the building to use has been delayed for the obvious reasons. The biggies who also sell vegetables, perhaps, cannot be hurt. The consumers do not band together, they only grumble.

In January, some vegetable markets such as the one proposed by the government now but delayed in Mumbai, were mentioned for Thane: Vijayanagari and Kalwa. I have been searching for them since then and local residents too are keen on finding out where.

When I speak to the service community – drivers, housemaids, washermen, societies’ house-keeping staff, construction workers and the like – and seek their logic for accepting money for votes – it was even Rs 3,000 per vote in the civic elections, they have an interesting answer. This is the only benefit they get from politicians since government is never within their reach.

Apparently, the elections have lost their meaning and have become huge farces. Everyone involved – politicians and the voters – have come to terms with each other in the belief that this is how it is going to be, having been so for quite a while. If that were to be the future too, well, God help the country.

This idea of vegetable markets to sell goods for prices cheaper by 30 percent is patently a poll gimmick. Had the government been keen, it could have summoned the wholesale dealers, given them a dressing down and forced them to stop profiteering.

It could have done a lot more over months to ensure the thriving middlemen don’t pocket about half of the retail price, and at least ten times what the farmer gets from them, as profits, by making some systemic changes in how farm produce is moved from the farm to the table.

This, of course, is not an issue limited to Maharashtra. Vegetable prices have soared across the country because using one pretext or the other, the entire vegetable trade has acted in a symphony which is sweet music only to their own ears.

But here is the jarring note: my cook tells me vegetable prices make no difference to the politicians. High prices never do, she argued, because, what that class splurges on their lifestyles is ill-begotten huge wealth.

She even says there is no point in even voting anymore. Her cynicism crackles like the garnish she makes for the vegetables. It seems such an essential element to Indian life. Her clincher was: it is not the government, but influence and bribes that work, so why bother?

Try arguing her out of it. I couldn’t. Because, I had no counter-argument, really.