By Pushkal Shivam:
This is part 3 of our 7 day series.
The festivities of Dussehra, which symbolize the triumph of good over evil, seem pale in the face of starvation. God, religion and customs are but secondary to the basic human necessity of food. The foyer of my hostel, adorned with buntings, was bustling with activity as the students bowed in front of the portrait of goddess Durga perched on a table. Their dapper appearance, with a vermilion tilak on their foreheads, contrasted starkly with my dishevelled look. As I brushed past the commotion, the figure ‘32’ was etched in my mind as a symbol of desperation. Being a slave to this symbol, my senses refused to revel in the festivities.
After being in a dither for a while, I bought a packet of biscuits which cost me Rs. 10. The glossy packet, which shouted out “30% FREE”, had enticed me into buying it. When I came to know that 100g of that biscuit offered “471 Kcal” of energy, it seemed like a very intelligent choice. Beaming with “471 Kcal” of energy, I dared to think, “If I were to cook my meals, how would life be?” To uncover the answer, I headed towards a ration store (a government undertaking) in the area around my college campus.
If I had a Ration Card issued by the government, I could have obtained 20kg of rice for free. One kilogram of sugar would have cost Rs. 13.50 and wheat Rs. 7.50. Wheat flour though would have cost Rs. 11 per kg. A litre of kerosene for my stove would have cost about Rs. 14. On the other hand, Palm oil would have cost Rs. 25 per litre.
M. Dakshinamurthy, who works as an assistant at the store, says, “When there is a supply shortage, people get angry.” Since these prices remain stable, the card holders would not be affected by inflation. As for the rise in the price of kerosene, in Dakshinamurthy’s words, “A small glass of water costs Rs. 4, so an increase in the price of kerosene by Rs. 2 does not matter much”. Earlier when all the kerosene had spilled out of a hole in a container brought by a little girl he had snapped, “If you waste like this, it’ll be a loss to all of us”.
The picture seemed very comforting to me minus the fact that a tramp living on Rs. 32 (or less) a day may never get hold of a Ration Card. The Planning Commission and the Rural Affairs Ministry have admitted that Rs. 32 a day is an extreme measure of poverty. It is also well- known that poverty alleviation schemes are ridden with fallacies pertaining to identification of the ‘poor’. No wonder then that India faces grinding poverty.
It is when the prices of goods available at the ration store are compared to the ones sold outside, the tragedy that price rise inflicts on our population becomes evident. Especially to someone who is barely managing one meal every day. An ordinary variety of rice costs Rs. 20 per kg where as wheat flour costs Rs. 24 per kg. Sugar, onions and potatoes costing Rs. 32/kg, Rs. 20/kg and Rs. 16/kg respectively are at a far cry. Half a litre of milk costs Rs. 11 and eggs Rs. 3 apiece. And I, ladies and gentlemen, am living on Rs. 32 a day.
The evening had set in and the legacy of the “471 kcal” of energy was crying out that I eat something. And so the question, “If I were to cook my meals, how would life be?” remained unaddressed. Perhaps fittingly so. This entire exercise is a parody of poor anyway. The next landmark in my hunt for meal was a “Bihari Dhaba” in Chennai. But with Rs. 22 in your pocket all you can get is a travesty of a meal.