Garder vos oignons, Monsieur Pawar!

At the start of his first term in the job, Sharad Pawar was billed as the greatest agriculture minister India had ever had. He was trying to increase yields not just of food grains but also things like milk from desi cows and eggs from Indian poultry. He was making a great effort to stop leakages from godowns and wastages during transport of food grains. He was also importing Brazilian and Australian techniques of sugarcane and wheat production. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had so much faith in him that he authorised the then Finance Minister for the largest write-off of loans to farmers to help them get over their debt crisis.

But that’s when it became apparent that Pawar was merely using his agriculture ministry to further his politics. The loan write-off benefited farmers in his own sugarcane belt of Western Maharashtra than it did the farmers of Vidarbha who were committing suicide every day for their inability to pay back loans. Pawar almost did not turn up when Dr Singh visited Vidarbha ( a region that hardly votes for his Nationalist Congress Party) with a package for farmers – only thought of the enormous adverse media coverage that this would invite forced him to change his plans at the last minute and attend the event.

Very recently, a Congressman in Maharashtra who visited Dr Singh with a petition against Pawar told me he had had to return with a sound scolding from the Prime Minister. “Why are you targeting my best minister?” the Prime Minister told him and allegedly refused to listen to his party man’s reasoning about why the food inflation and agricultural situation in the country had become so poor during Pawar’s regime.

This Congressman was armed with minute details and statistics that proved Pawar’s complicity in the series of food crises in the country – wheat, rice, sugar, dal, onions and now tomatoes. It was his opinion that Pawar’s penchant for crony capitalism was the factor that was leading to crisis after crisis. Pawar is fond of describing himself as an ‘agriculturist’ rather than a politician. So, said this Congressman, he should have been able to spot each coming crisis before it was quite upon us.

It was this Congressman’s contention that Pawar was no man’s fool but that other intelligent men in the government including the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister were wearing the fool’s cap put on their heads by Sharad Pawar. And all the time, traders close to Pawar benfited out of each agricultural crisis. I do not know if this is true but the figure that this man gave me over the sugar crisis is astounding: according to him traders close to Pawar cleared a neat Rs 198 crore from their sugar hoards last year.

“And why do we keep exporting and importing when we are in shortfall and plenty respectively?” he asked. “We couldn’t stop exporting sugar; we imported cheap inedible Australian wheat even when our godowns were overflowing.”

Now this same man asks why onions were being exported when it was clear that Nasik, in Pawar’s fiefdom, which produces India’s largest supply of the bulbous vegetable, had suffered both disease and a shortfall in production? It is only the Prime Minister’s intervention that stopped the exports and brought the prices of onions down.

Now that of tomatoes is rising. I haven’t been to the rural areas of late but this Congressman tells me he has seen farmers dump loads of tomatoes by the roadside on the highways because there are no takers – and the wholesale market prices have gone up only last week from around Rs 20-25 per kg to around Rs30-40 per kg. So are the prices being artificially inflated to benefit traders again? I am no economist. Perhaps Dr Manmohan Singh, who is now personally monitoring the onion prices, would know better.

But, I must say, Pawar’s explanations for each food crisis is fantastic: when rice prices increased he said that was because of late more than just South Indians were beginning to consume rice as a staple. During the artificial wheat shortage he opined that those in the North-East, too, were now beginning to eat chappatis during both meals. I recall during the water contamination crisis he even said something like, “Even mother’s milk is adulterated.”

Pawar had once told me India was placed best in the entire world in terms of agricultural/horticultural production. “Europe and the American continent have to contend with extreme winters when nothing grows in the snow for a few months every year. The Middle-East similarly gets too hot during some months to produce anything edible. These are then golden months for us – we can grow anything and everything through the year and supply them with fresh fruits, vegetable and flowers. We have to leverage this advantage to the best possible extent.”

I can see Pawar is leveraging the advantage to the best possible extent. But whose is the advantage? And is this the best possible deal for us Indians?

During my stint in Paris several years ago, I picked up many French idioms, one of which is my favourite: occupe-toi de tes oignons which simply meant ‘mind your own business’. But the Anglophones among us modified it suit the English-speaking mindset and gave it a different nuance: garder vos oignons which literally means ‘guard your onions’ but, in the French slang, was meant to warn people to safeguard their interests.

I think that usage today fits Pawar to the ‘T’ (or should it be ‘P’?). Its time the Maratha warlord began to guard his onions (and tomatoes along with it). Or the Prime Minister could really lose faith in the best minister he has ever had!

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