Calcutta, July 2: Green chilli has given the Left the sting it has been looking for to pierce the seemingly impenetrable armour of Mamata Banerjee.
Skyrocketing vegetable prices in Bengal — chillies sold for Rs 200 a kg in some markets in Calcutta today — have for the first time since the Assembly polls thrown up an issue that concerns every citizen for which the chief minister can blame neither “34 years of Left rule” nor “kana mama (blind uncle)” aka the Centre.
“It is almost certain that the reason behind the price rise is more to do with man-made factors than economic reasons and that’s why the problem is posing a serious challenge to the chief minister,” said a senior state government official, almost echoing word to word an economist who spoke to The Telegraph.
The CPM, which had been repeatedly advised by Mamata to shut up for at least 10 years and let the government work, appeared to clear its throat with force today, going beyond the token murmurs of protest other issues have elicited so far.
“If the government wants to do something, it can. But all it does is say that we ruled for 34 years. It is afraid to bring up the price rise in the Assembly and discuss,” Opposition leader Surjya Kanta Mishra said after the Speaker disallowed a discussion.
Keeping the focus firmly on alleged inaction by the government, Mishra also offered to share with the administration the experience of the Left Front in addressing price rise.
“We want an all-party meet on price rise within seven days. Never have vegetable prices soared like this. That’s why we walked out of the House this morning,” Mishra added.
The CPM has timed its initiative with care. Last week, the Left had agreed “in principle” to a proposal by Mamata to send an all-party delegation to Delhi to press for a moratorium on debt servicing.
The government did not reciprocate today by accepting the demand for an all-party meeting on price rise, which the CPM is hoping will show up the Trinamul leadership in poor light.
“Both are pro-people issues. So, we can now say that it’s the CPM and not Trinamul that rises to the defence of Bengal’s interests,’’ said a CPM state committee member.
“That’s why our party demanded that an all-party meeting be convened by the state government to discuss price rise… so that the common man gets some relief. But, by turning down our demand, the Mamata government is helping us attack them and get closer to the poor sections,’’ a CPM state secretariat member said today.
Such simplistic options are not expected to provide the CPM with the ballast it needs to pull itself out of the rut but the aggression on price rise appeared to touch a raw nerve in Mamata.
The chief minister, realising that a high-decibel campaign on a bread-and-butter issue like price rise would strike a chord among the people, today announced several measures to demonstrate that her government was concerned about the plight of the people.
Some measures — such as a committee to monitor the prices of vegetables — are traditional. Some are unusual — such as toying with the idea of halting supply of chillies for sauces and pickles for a fortnight. “If we can do this, we will be able to direct around 140 tonnes of chillies for households. That will help bring down the prices within the next 15 days,” Mamata said.
The government has also announced the sale of 142 commodities at subsidised rates through ration shops across the state. The items on offer include basmati rice, edible oil and Horlicks.
The government is hoping to purchase these items in bulk on discount and pass them on to consumers at 4 per cent lower than the market price.
“Companies like Britannia, Sunrise, ITC, Cookme and MPS have already signed agreements with the state government for this purpose,” food minister Jyotipriya Mullick said.
Trinamul leaders admitted that unlike on fuel prices, Mamata could not pass the buck to the Centre, which the chief minister had once referred to as “kana mama” to express her dissatisfaction with the quantum of assistance to the state.
Mamata, too, appeared keen to send the message that she had stepped in, saying she was “closely monitoring” the situation, even though “it isn’t really my job”.
At Writers’, Mamata said: “We have already started work on monitoring the hows and whys of price rise. The situation is serious, especially because there is virtually no deficit in production this year, be it vegetables, potatoes or rice.”
Mamata blamed middlemen for “artificially” spiking prices of potatoes.
She felt that an “unnecessary” shortfall had been created in rice by many producers who were stocking up to sell at a later date. “This should not be done. The grain, if stocked for a year, could rot. Nobody will buy rotten crops. Also, if they’re planning to sell this year’s produce next year, what will they do with next year’s produce?” asked Mamata.