Opposition, government spar in parliament over high prices

New Delhi, Feb 25 (Calcutta Tube) Using decades of political experience and his oratory skills, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee Wednesday sought to quell the voices of protest from the opposition over high prices, saying his government had taken all possible measures to check inflation.

Participating in a debate on the subject in the Lok Sabha, Mukherjee said from releasing more food to states and granting extra subsidies on pulses and edible oils to importing sugar and other items, every step was adopted over the past months to check price rise.

Hours before he was to present the federal budget for the next fiscal, the 74-year-old leader of the house also said agriculture being a state subject, it was not possible for the federal government to force the states to lift supplies and accept subsidies.

‘You can’t expect the agriculture minister to carry food on his head and go from door to door,’ said Mukherjee, as his cabinet colleague handling the portfolio Sharad Pawar listened in attention. ‘Only six states so far have accepted the edible oil subsidy.’

Mukherje’s remarks came on a day when official data put India’s annual food inflation at 17.58 percent for the week ended Feb 13, with vegetables dearer by 13.57 percent, potatoes by 30.4 percent, pulses by 35.74 percent and fruits by 12.08.

The finance minister’s intervention also came after the opposition parties, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJ), the Left Front constituents and the Samajwadi Party launched an attack on the government and also alleged a scam in tackling rising prices.

‘We demand a joint parliamentary commission to inquire into the scams in wheat, rice, pulses and sugar,’ said Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj, adding it was curious the government had both imported and exported sugar at the same time.

She said sugar was being exported at Rs.12.5 per kg but imported at Rs.36 per kg. This was boosting the profits of sugar companies, she added. ‘Their profits have jumped by 2,900 percent. This is a scam and this is a scam that should be investigated.’

Mukherjee, however, said high inflation was not a unique phenomenon and prices were up in a similar fashion in 1974 when the official wholesale price index was up 24 percent over a 52-week period and again in 1991 when P.V. Narasimha Rao was the prime minister.

‘But the Indian economy has the resilience to overcome the crisis,’ he said, adding: ‘Wait for sometime. Our government is only seven months old.’ The finance minister also said the world over food prices were highly unpredictable.

He took on the Left parties over public distribution system not being run properly, saying: ‘All this is mere ideological posturing. Not practical.’

A respite for him came only after he concluded his speech. He noted he had done something out of the box in parliament by speaking barely 24 hours he was to present the federal budget, only because the opposition had forced him to the debate.

Swaraj replied: ‘Mr. Mukherjee, we are all waiting for your budget tomorrow. Take a hot cup of coffee and take rest.’

In the Rajya Sabha, too, the opposition was unrelenting in its criticism over spiralling prices, saying the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was merely looking for alibis to cover up for its failures.

‘Has this government run out of ideas on how to control prices,’ Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley asked while initiating a discussion on the subject in the Rajya Sabha and then replied: ‘Obviously it has. The government is only looking for alibis.’

‘Could the government not anticipate the supply-side shortfall,’ he wondered, adding: ‘Today, we are facing a situation where the government’s inability to control inflation has become an indirect tax on the consumer.’

Mukherjee said a small working group had been formed after the chief ministers conference earlier this month to suggest steps to reduce prices of food items.

He said the government was providing subsidised edible oils and pulses through the public distribution system and states should take advantage of the move.

On the opposition’s accusation that the government had not brought Food Security Act, Mukherjee said it was not possible to bring the legislation last year due to drought. ‘I feel we are reaching that stage where it will be possible to enact the Food Security Act,’ he said.

He said the government has taken steps to improve demand-supply position and also resorted to monetary mechanisms to check price rise.

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