Sayajirao Gaekwad, the ruler of the erstwhile State of Baroda had a self-imposed rule: visit the local markets from where his subjects bought their groceries, once a week. The logic was, that the marketplace – how much people bought for what price – provided a true indicator of the status of his people for he could not possibly visit households.
Simultaneously, this wise, astute ruler, who also financed BR Ambedkar’s studies overseas, had another routine: keep a sharp eye on the kitchen budget; costing its menu with the belief that a reasonably managed kitchen was a daily pilot for a well-managed State. In short, he was fine-tuned to the world around him.
The same cannot be said of the swaggering politicians who rule us today. They are so out of touch with the realities of their country, that they do not even know how much it costs the poor to put food on their plates. If they did manage, it was not even adequate to ensure the calorific content, leave alone nutrition.
This was manifest when Raj Babbar, the official spokesperson of the Congress boasted of a full meal with lots of rice and few pieces of vegetables thrown in, for Rs 12 in Mumbai. The poorly informed politician was defending the doubtful poverty line of Rs 27 for rural areas and Rs 33 for urban. All, from his make-believe-world.
If only Babbar were to disclose this caterer’s identity, who then can scale up his output, spread his activity across the country – the government with its Food Security Law (the Bill is law, by the ordinance) can then save on huge subsidy bills. It needn’t even tweak efficiency into the scandalous public distribution system.
But Rashid Masood, also of Congress, popped up with his assertion, that a meal could be had for just Rs 5 in Delhi and spoilt this possibility. As if to better him, the elder Farooq Abdullah chipped in with another number: Re 1. It all depended, he explained, on what one wanted to eat. I suppose these three worthies have not proffered those sums in the market place in a long, long time.
That same Rs 5, if you recall, was what Congress’ spiel-master, Manish Tewari, said was the market discovered price of Narendra Modi, to attend whose rally in Hyderabad people have to pay at the gate. The logic of Rs 5 being insultingly low for a politician, somehow, suddenly, is absurdly enough for a meal. And someone else says a fifth of that was enough.
That is why, the media attempt to impale these worthies, and especially so on television was also misplaced. For, these news outlets went hammer and tongs at the Congressmen who turned up at their studios by pointing to the prices in restaurants and street-side eateries. This was under the belief that the poor, as a rule, eat out, which is not the case.
Eateries, of whatever kind, quality, or location, are not in the business of charity but for profits. This is so even with the neighbourhood roadside vendor of cooked food. There is a mark-up in everything sold and this mark-up is an additional crippler for the poor who know everything is high priced anyhow.
Even the footpath dwellers some of whom don’t even have a lean-to under which they can sleep, only manage setting up a tripod, light a fire within it using any scrap wood, and try to cook their meal, such as it is. They pay for the water at rates which people like us don’t.
They buy fuel in the form of broken packing cases from the scrap market, kerosene, when available, at Rs 80 a litre in the black market, depend on the shadow world of vegetable retailing where what drops of a truck at or near wholesale markets is sold, not necessarily cheap.
Unless, of course, the three worthies – Babbar, Masood, and Abdullah - who suddenly hogged media space by their complete ignorance of the real world, themselves imagine that what they pay for in the Parliament House canteen is what the poor too pay elsewhere outside that smug cocoon. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Yes, of course, some cheap food can be had Tamil Nadu, where idlis are dished out at a buck apiece by kitchens set up by Jayalalithaa’s government, but they point to the huge subsidy involved. There, a curd and rice mix, a pinch of salt included, can be had for Rs 3. But then, it is obviously, like in Parliament House canteen, heavily subsidised.
These spokespersons’ blathering could do serious harm to the Congress, and can be a replay of high onion prices bringing governments down in the past, if the opposition knew how to handle it. But that line-up is engaged in the advisability of letting Nobel laureate Amartya Sen continue holding his Bharat Ratna, for he is ill-disposed to Narendra Modi as prime minister.