For the common man in Assam, the promise of change that came with the BJP-led alliance government is yet to translate onto the prices front. The State has been groaning under continually rising prices for well nigh three years now. The long-serving food, civil supplies and consumer affairs minister of the earlier Congress government was remarkable for his frequent public utterances pleading helplessness. The impression people got was that the government was simply not with them when it came to keeping prices under check. Rather, the opposite impression gained currency — that the then government was allowing unscrupulous traders and illegal syndicates to set prices and rig the market as they pleased. So the Congress is in the proverbial glass house when it now throws stones at the BJP; recently, the APCC accused the State government of allowing traders to hike prices ‘so that they can recover the money spent in bringing the BJP to power’. This may be another attempt to score political brownie points, but it is imperative that the Sarbanda Sonowal government should now get moving on the prices front. Granted, it has been only three months since it took over reins; the chief minister is known to be speaking to deputy commissioners to keep track of prices. He has also spoken to cement companies recently, with prices rising by Rs 30-40 per bag. Cement companies here have been ascribing price rise to higher coal prices elsewhere in the country, as well as higher VAT rates imposed by the Assam government. But the State government’s writ has to run. In a limestone-rich region, it cannot allow the cement lobby to fleece customers. And when it comes to fuel prices, there has been no respite for consumers in Assam. Even on the few occasions petrol prices come down in other parts of the country, the benefit is rarely passed on to consumers here. The State’s finces may depend much on taxes on petrol, but consumers are literally paying a price with costly petrol-diesel making other goods costlier.
Considering that the Modi government at the Centre is being repeatedly cornered by the Opposition on rising prices, the BJP-led government in Assam cannot afford to relax vigil. Last month in Parliament, the government was taken to task for not bringing down fuel prices despite the price of crude plummeting from 106 to 40 dollars per barrel. Hard questions were asked about the Central government imposing cesses on various commodities. In a country where most people spend a major part of their income on food — consistently rising food prices is bad news. Even PM Modi had to broach the matter in his I-Day speech this year, assuring that he will do his best ‘not to let the food plate of the poor get costlier’. He has a task on his hands, for only last week, the official inflation data revealed that wholesale prices in July rose above expectations by 3.55 percent, primarily due to higher food costs. On a yearly basis, food prices rose by 11.82 percent, with vegetables and fruits as well as staple grains pinching the poor man’s pocket. Combined with the rising cost of services, including healthcare and education, the outlook is bleak for the salaried and middle classes too. An expected good monsoon, the seventh pay commission payout and rollout of goods and services tax (GST) next year, are all likely to stoke inflatiory pressures. It is filly the poor who will bear the brunt, while rising inequality will fuel their angst. For the Sarbanda Sonowal government, its first year will be crucial as it tries to mop up revenue and shore up finces. But where possible, it should cut taxes and crack down on hoarders. Recently, a civil society group ‘Forum of Conscious Citizens’ raised the question as to how fish costing below Rs 40 in Andhra Pradesh sell in Assam at prices around Rs 200. Even a humble egg costs two rupees more when it crosses the check gates into Assam. This is the sort of loot consumers in the State are putting up with — from eggs to cement, from fish to steel rods. When it comes to such illegal syndicates so synonymous with the previous regime in the State, Dispur’s policy now should be zero tolerance.