A thought for food

‘In the long run, we are all dead’, quipped John Maynard Keynes, the legendary economist. The provocation must have been quite dire for a man used to spouting hardcore monetary theories to come under such a philosophical spell. It is also possible that the economist was just displaying some dry humour out of sheer frustration; again the retort could be an angry reaction to a zealous student or a persistent critic seeking out a clarification beyond the confines of a typical cyclical graph and ideally falling in the domain of an astrologer. But whatever, the profound statement exemplifies a simple fact of life: the utter futility of looking too far into time. But then, Keynes was being rather optimistic. We could actually be dead, decapitated or dangling dangerously in the very short run itself.

Now all that verbal build-up was just an attempt to make the ensuing essay on economics and certain other equally distressing stuff a bit spicy. Let me now warn you, I am in a foul mood. So read no further if you value your weekend respite from work. But read on if you are game for some lousy lament. The long and short of the matter is simply this: How long is long run? And how short can the short run get? The answer is not actually in the hands of smart, well-lettered economists. Rather, players beyond the radar of economists and jihadis jaded by religious fervour hold the key to those questions, respectively.

When recession hit the world and India in ‘08 and gathered momentum during ‘09, the primetime pundits and economic experts were ‘worried’ over deflation, ie, fall in prices of essential and other commodities. When on the contrary, the prices started spiralling even as the recession went on without getting deflated, the same pundits, despite their puerile past predictions, declared that the prices would stabilise in the ‘long run’. It’s now many months after that with no end in sight for this harrowing run on our meagre finances. Food Inflation seems to have scant regard for the forces of gravity and is instead headed skyward to god-knows-where at breakneck speed. Any average housewife or a domestically well-trained hubby can spontaneously reel out the month-wise, item-wise price rise of essential commodities. Mobile phones and LCD TVs are getting cheaper, no doubt, but our digestive systems are not designed to handle them.

Ironically, the national government is being led by an ivy league economist of proven vintage. Yet the price situation is spinning out of control of the clueless rulers with no solution in sight even in the long run when the promised stability is slated to arrive. Sure, theories abound about the causes. Many blame the hike in procurement prices of paddy and sundry other agricultural produce. There are those who say that the Pay Commission has put more money in the hands of government staff, thus increasing the liquidity in the system which in turn is a sure provocateur of inflation. The reckless retail credit spree of the last many years and higher incomes of the middle-class are touted as further fuel to the inflation fire. Then there is always this elementary discourse on demand-supply mismatch. But beyond all these familiar textbook suspects lie some dark truths that have nothing to do with economics.

Clearly many out there are making a killing. For one, after years, India is importing rice, sugar, cooking oil etc despite being among the top producers of the same. Is the supply shortfall engineered so as to enable imports? The whiff of scandal is all too evident. Again, despite lower output due to less rains, most essential items are actually available. Only they are not affordable. This strange scenario debunks the demand-supply-mismatch theory. Also, it proves that the corrupt, corroded PDS feeds the unscrupulous merchant vested interests which in turn are sustained by local political nexus. Also if hike in procurement price is the cause, it should then be a cause for celebration, for, that, along with loan-waivers, should mean salvation for farmers. Well, the current farmer-suicide rate remains at the last twelve year average of 12000! The hand that feeds the nation is still unable to feed itself. Obviously, the loans waived and the increased procurement prices have been lost in the way. We dont need a Keynes to discover that no economics is involved in all these shenanigans that are the handiwork of perpetrators and reasons beyond the walls of cocooned seminar halls and conventional economic wisdom. Most fear that this inflation run will last quite long, long enough for us dead ducks to fulfil Lord K’s prophecy!

But why wait for food prices to spiral and starve us in the long run when the jihadis could very well grant you instant Mokshaa in the short run itself? In a morbid metaphor for the explosive food inflation, they chose a Pune eatery and a dining table actually to place a bomb. So it is not just the food prices that were going through the roof, and some walls too, but bloodied bodies as well. In that respect, last week’s bakery blast went beyond the familiar terror message. And with that also exploded the illusory immunity that India was assumed to have achieved post 26/11. But to his credit, Home Minister PC has been consistently warning against precisely such complacency. But as is their habit, the local government and police ignored obvious indicators of an impending attack shining like neon signs. Of course, one can rest assured that Pak will get away with this too and instead get solicitous invitations to the all-important, terror-proof peace talks that will go on in the short run, long run and the eternal run too.

So with our personal security imperilled by a fragile food security and a shaky national security, where do we run to? Nowhere, to cut a long story short, particularly when your food plate can blow up on your face in more ways than one, anytime!

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Jawahar T R