Pulse rate: collateral benefit
08 February 2016
The process of coping with scarcities can be quite trying for a bureaucrat, says Vivek K Agnihotri, former secretary general, Rajya Sabha
In the days gone by, there used to be an aphorism in a Hindi dialect - ghar kee murgi dal baroba. It meant that no value is attached to a thing that is easily available.
However, an unprecedented increase in the price of pulses, (particularly the Indian universal tuvar dal or split red gram), has sent the pulse of the common man racing, spawning, a host of jokes and cartoons, at the cost of once humble lentils, such as the 'dal banam murgi' (pulse versus chicken) genre.
At this point, for the uninitiated, it may not be out of place to throw some perfunctory light on the mind-boggling range of pulses and / or lentils consumed in India. Local names of some of these, along with their English equivalents, are given in the table at the bottom.
The governments (state as well the centre) have inter alia gone into the customary overdrive against the so-called hoarders. If hoarding happens, can raids be far behind?
It has reportedly resulted in a huge haul of more than 130,000 metric tonnes of lentils across the country - over ten times the quantity imported as well as proposed to be imported by the government, and practically at no cost; it is yours for the taking.
However, according to one estimate, it is still only about one-tenth of the likely demand for it in the country till the next harvest.
These operations remind me of a couple of anti-hoarding and anti-smuggling drives, of which I was part of during the early part of my career
Actually, that is the carefree phase in the calling of most of the civil servants, when they hoof it, where angels would be wary of treading.
The year was 1972, when I had just about completed my first year of my first posting as Sub- (called Sub Collector) in the then State of Andhra Pradesh. The culprit on that occasion was not dal but fertilizers, a more precious and politically charged commodity in the so-called rice bowl of the country.
Our informant told us that in a local godown there was a stock of fertilizer, which had been diverted from its legitimate destination and hoarded for black marketing. I, along with my entourage of local Tahsildar, Block Development Officer (BDO), some village functionaries and a modicum of constabulary, reached the place unannounced.
I had not informed any member of the retinue the exact purpose of our getting together. It was around 12 noon on a working day, but the godown, which belonged to a cooperative society of which the local MLA was the president, was locked, with no caretaker in sight.
I ordered the locks to be broken, following the prescribed procedure, known as panchnama. The Tahsildar and the BDO were apprehensive and advised me against it. The president of the cooperative society happened to be a minister of the state government. In the first flush of youth and idealism, I directed them to do what I had told them.
The locks were broken and, sure enough, a huge unauthorised stock of fertilizers was unearthed, along with some innocuous material. An inventory was taken and the godown was sealed following the prescribed procedures.
I returned to my office, prepared a report under the Essential Commodities Act and sent it, along with the concerned documents, to the collector of the district for further action. My job was over and I proceeded to undertake other similar misadventures.
Those were days of scarcities. Everything was scare and, therefore, under the 'command and control' regime (direct regulation of an industry or activity by legislation that states what is permitted and what is illegal) to a great extent. It was applicable not only to food grains and fertilizers, but also to cars, of all things.
For example, if I wanted to buy a new Fiat car (one of the two or at most three options at that time, and the most popular for private use), the waiting time was about 18 months, even if I had the money. Its 'controlled' price at that time was about Rs14,000 (a big sum in terms of purchase power, though). It was approximately 28 times my monthly take home salary; today the price of a decent car is only 6 times my take home pension and is available off the shelf!.
Coming back to my misadventure, having done my job, I forgot about it till I was told by my Tahsildar that the Collector had released the seized stock of fertilizers. I forgot about that too, till I came to know through the grapevine that the collector had been made an out-of-turn allotment of a Fiat car. The minister concerned was the minister for transport.
A few years later, I was posted as joint collector (additional district magistrate) in a district, which was facing foodgrain scarcity (particularly of rice), but was surrounded by the legendary 'rice bowl'. It had little rice production, but was blessed with a slew of rice mills, some of them conveniently located at the district borders.
In order to ensure that the rice millers delivered the 'levy' quantity of rice to the administration, there were restrictions on inter-district movement of paddy (un-milled rice). No paddy from other districts could enter my district for milling, without a certificate from my counterpart that the levy on it had been delivered or deposited.
Since most clandestine operations take place during the night, it was the duty of my team to patrol the borders and catch trucks entering our district without the necessary certificate and vice versa. Occasionally, I accompanied my team on these nocturnal sojourns.
It was perhaps a festival holiday, and expecting a huge haul, we went on patrol to porous border points with a large team. At the dead of night, we accosted a caravan of trucks; stopped and seized them for want of necessary certificates.
The trucks were brought to the district headquarters and parked in the collectorate compound, with ample security arrangements. Next day, as expected, my subordinate staff started receiving desperate calls from local big-wigs, including the rice millers, for release of the trucks.
The officers came to me for instructions; I told them to proceed as per law and get the rice milled for realisation of levy and sale of the rest in the open market.
A couple of days later, one of the senior officers came to me and said, ''Sir, there is great pressure. What should I do?''
I told him that we were in the chief minister's district and if he was not bothered, why should he? And that put all doubts to rest.