100 days of UPA-2: Spiralling prices, food insecurity mar reign

100 days of UPA-2: Spiralling prices, food insecurity mar reign


As the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government completes 100 days in office, the brunt is being felt across India and across all sections of society -- from the vegetable seller and the middle class homemaker to the techie and the financial consultant.

Food security has become elusive. An unprecedented rise in the prices of essential commodities, including rice and pulses, has smashed the class divide, making even daal-roti a luxury for many.

Said Saibal Sahoo, a vegetable seller in Kolkata: "The prices of essentials are so high that it is difficult for me to sustain a family of five; and because prices are so high, people are also buying less vegetables. So my business is suffering."

R. Shanti, a housewife in Chennai, had a similar tale of woe. "Income has not gone up whereas prices have in the last 100 days, leaving me poorer by Rs 2,000 per month."

While appreciating the prime minister for doing a "reasonably good job given all constraints, natural or man-made", Mumbai-based Arun Jain also said there was a lot to be desired.
"The inflationary figures released each week are quite heartening, but the ground realities with spiralling prices are a matter of concern," said Arun Jain, a financial consultant who is also engaged in the ship breaking industry.

The hike in petrol and diesel prices, according to Shimla-based transporter Vinay Sharma, had a cascading impact on the prices of essential commodities. Others blamed an erratic monsoon.
"While the country is facing the worst drought in 100 years, the government has not yet come out with any concrete action plan. The plight of the farmers is worsening," said Jagdish Pradhan in Bhubaneswar.
If escalating prices touched a raw nerve across the country, there were other concerns. The government's handling of swine flu has also faced flak.
"Had the centre done enough in the early stages of the spread of swine flu, the death toll could have been checked," said Mandira Ghosh, a schoolteacher in Bangalore, where 19 people have succumbed to the disease.

Intellectuals had big-picture grievances and hit out at the government for its perceived failures on the foreign policy front.
Paras Nath Choudhary, a socialist intellectual based in Agra, criticised the government for giving in to Pakistan by including Balochistan in the Sharm el-Sheikh joint statement that delinked actions against terror from the composite dialogue process.

"At the international level, one feels that India has become meek. Attacks on Indian students in Australia still go on and the government is not able to do anything," added a salaried executive in Chennai.
But it was not a uniformly grim picture. Path-breaking initiatives like the enactment of the right to education, which universalises primary education, earned high praise.

"The government's performance is not all that bad. Price rise can be attributed to global inflation rates. The right to education has so far been the landmark achievement of this government, which we cannot ignore," said Shazia Salaam, 23, a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the national capital.

Fakhra Siddiqui, 28, who conducts workshops on life skills and coexistence, conceded that the education act was a great achievement, but reminded the government of the promises to keep.
"I will count you the targets they (the government) themselves set for the first 100 days. Women's Reservation Bill, right to education, food security act, judges' assets bill, plus a plethora of other infrastructure building promises. And then look what we have achieved," she said.
Others were more realistic in their expectation and were ready to swear by "honesty and humility" of Manmohan Singh but thought he needed some more time to deliver.

"The government seems to be functioning smoothly as there are no internal problems in the coalition. There were also no terrorist attacks or communal disturbances," said Narendranath Reddy, a software professional working in Hyderabad.

G. Surendranath, an engineering student at Osmania University in Hyderabad, appeared optimistic. "It's not proper to judge the performance of the government in 100 days. Let's wait and see how it responds to various challenges," he said.

According to Mumbai realtor Nitin Shah, the prime minister and the Congress should grab this second opportunity to make some lasting changes in the country.
"Getting a second term is a measure of people's confidence that they enjoy. They must not let them (the people) down," he said.
Is the government listening?

Promises to keep

After hiccups caused by the deadlock in negotiations with some of its pre-poll allies over portfolio allocations, Manmohan Singh put together his full team, combining youth and experience to get down to the business of governance. Clearly, the emphasis has been on the United Progressive Alliance's (UPA) unfinished agenda, especially in the infrastructure and development sectors, and announcement of a fresh stimulus package to pull the economy out of the present global slowdown.

Giving a push to its rural development and employment programmes - a major factor for its renewed mandate, a whopping Rs.391 billion ($8 billion) was set aside for the UPA's flagship National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, a jump of over 114 percent from the previous outlay in addition to increased allocation for the Bharat Nirman programme that seeks to improve infrastructure in villages.
Besides, the government saw through a historic Right to Education Bill that ensures free and compulsory education to children aged between six to 14 years, ushered a revamped Companies Bill and unveiled a draft direct tax code that will replace the nearly five-decade-old Income Tax Act.
According to historian Ramachandra Guha, 100 days could not be a yardstick to judge a government's performance but he was optimistic.
"I am not sure if we can evaluate the government on what they have achieved and what they have not. Many things have happened and policies have been framed. I will give them 50-50," Guha said.
Recognising that the lack of identity proof has resulted in harassment and denial of services to the poor and marginalized, the prime minister is according high priority to the newly constituted Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) that will provide a single identity number and card to each of the country's 1.17 billion people.
"Things are being put in place, policies are at different stages of implementation. In some cases, financial allocations are being made while in other cases approvals are needed from competent authorities before legislation," said Sriram Khanna, a professor at the prestigious Delhi School of Economics.
"The jury is still out on how the 100 days have passed but the moot point is that people will want this government to deliver and live up to its promises."
In the midst of the slowdown that is showing signs of recovery, the government has also had to focus its energies on a drought, the worst in nearly two decades, and battle with the problem of containing swine flu that has claimed more than 75 lives and affected over 3,000 people.

"This is clearly a big crisis that the government faces and somehow it is not showing the urgency that is required. Sharad Pawar, the agriculture minister, has not been able to act and there is a gaping hole in his ministry," said Meghnad Desai, British economist and Labour politician, who claims to be a good friend of Manmohan Singh.
"He (Singh) has several competent ministers in Pranab Mukherjee and P. Chidambaram and even Murli Deora but somehow despite India being a rising power, we do not have a cabinet that reflects a super power," Desai commented.
On the security front, having described the Mumbai terror strike as the tipping point to revamp national security, Manmohan Singh has continued to stress on putting in place critical strategies, fill police vacancies and strengthen intelligence systems to thwart further attacks. However, there is still a long way to go to secure the country.
The government had to face some uncomfortable moments after Manmohan Singh's trip to the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Egypt where a joint statement delinked terror from the composite dialogue with Pakistan and also included a controversial reference to trouble-hit Balochistan.
Though the opposition claimed it was a surrender of "national interest", the prime minister stood his ground saying he had not broken national consensus and pointed out that the only way forward to mend relations with Pakistan was to begin to trust despite all that had happened in the past.
"Not trust blindly, but trust and verify," he said, borrowing a signature phrase of the late US president Ronald Reagan.

The challenges before the government are plenty and, in many cases, difficult. Soon after he was sworn in, Manmohan Singh quoted French Romantic writer Victor Hugo as saying that "No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come".
How he and his government turn that idea to purposeful action will be keenly watched.

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