The markets in Assam are on fire and the prices of essential foodstuffs are going through the roof. The spectre of floods has barely raised its head and already traders across the State are quoting unbelievable prices for everyday commodities. Almost all pulses and grams are selling at prices much above Rs 100 per kg; their prices were little more than half this rate only a couple of months back. As for all brands of cooking oil, these are only getting costlier. The oft-trotted out excuse is that unseasol rains in other parts of the country has damaged crops of pulses and oilseeds, hence the steep increase in prices. Then there is the mysterious rise in potato and onion prices. It is almost as if someone, somewhere in the State has pressed a button and all at once the prices of these two commodities have nearly doubled in a fortnight. The syndicates controlling these commodities are almost a law unto themselves, jacking up prices whenever it suits their interests. There is a Food and Civil Supplies department in the State, but no one would suspect its existence. It should be keeping an eye on prices, comparing prices in other States with those in the State, holding wholesalers to account, ensuring retailers and markets display and quote prices properly, and keeping hoarders, profiteers and black-marketers in check. There are a number of instruments like the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 and the Prevention of Black Marketing and Maintence of Essential Commodities Act, 1980 to keep order in the markets, but Assam has long been a sad exception. Strict vigilance and monitoring of movement of foodstuff and essential commodities from outside to various parts of the State is a must to keep price rise in check. Instead the State is held hostage to syndicate raj, goonda tax and collection of dotions by various organisations, as well as rampant extortion by personnel of police, sales tax, enforcement, transport and sundry other departments.
Dr zrul Islam has had a lock-hold on the Food and Civil Supplies department for donkeys years, a period when all shady, unscrupulous operators in the markets have been having a free run. In the eyes of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, this minister can do no wrong; in the eyes of the public, his long tenure has shown how miserably ineffective a government department can be, that too an important department which ought to ensure public well-being in terms of affordable food and essential goods. Sudden and suspect increase in prices in the State has long been its bane, but Dr Islam has one stock answer — his department ‘does not control market forces and therefore cannot set prices’. But surely the minister can take a strong, pro-active stand, making it clear that his department stands on the side of the people and not market sharks creating artificial shortages and indulging in other opaque, unfair practices. Instead Dr Islam now has the temerity to blame the Prime Minister for the current price rise. On being asked what his department is doing to control prices, he said, “This question should be posed to Modi”! The interesting trend is that inflation across the country has been stable for quite some time at around 5 per cent. If the Assam government cannot take advantage of this price stability in other parts of the country, it once again raises the suspicion of an all-encompassing nexus between the Tarun Gogoi government so soft on corruption and numerous syndicates controlling different commodities in the State.