But today you'll need more than an AC Sonia Sadaf
Our infatuation with controlling the prices of essential commodities is ancient. Since antiquity, our kings and their counsels have tried to keep a check on surging prices. Kautilya Chanakya, the famous philosopher and teacher of ancient India, emphasized effective price control measures in his book Arthashastra. In his time, prices were ascertained by the Superintendent of Commerce, an office that handed out fines and punishments to those found guilty of making undue profit. So, if you were to roam the streets of Pataliputra, the seat of the Maurya Dynasty, rest assured that the prices would be well within your reach.
The great ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, Alauddin Khilji, whose legacy recently bore the brunt of the unwatchable Padmavat, was famed for his market reforms. However, in Kishori Saran Lal’s assessment of his reign, their main objective was not to improve the quality of life for his subjects, but to bankroll his ambition. He had a “passion for incessant conquests and constant invasions of the Mongol free-booters from the north-west had rendered the maintenance of a large army unavoidable.” If Alauddin Khilji wanted to keepa large army, he needed more value for money—though like everyone else even he had to pay his soldiers. Therefore, by strictly controlling the market, he managed to bring down the cost of living.
But this assessment is based on our decadent definition of greatness which judges a king for the wars he has won, lands he has conquered and invaders he has routed. In my opinion, this barometer is myopic as Alauddin’s actions were hugely popular with his people. Noted historian Ziauddin Barani of the Tugluq era argued that market reforms were introduced for the welfare of the people. Tarikh-i-Daudi, a history book authored almost 250 years later, hails as fortuitous Alauddin Khilji’s efforts while referring to the drop in prices during Ibrahim Lodhi’s times, clearly indicating that the Delhi Sultanate ruler’s systems not only survived but became the stuff of legend.
A typical medieval Indian market was regulated to maintain the right price. A dip was not received well by the Mughal administration as it directly hit revenue collection. Governor of Multan Prince Muizuddin (later Emperor Jahandar Shah) had complained during the reign of his grandfather Emperor Aurangzeb about the failure to meet revenue targets because bumper crops led to a fall in prices from a glut of supply. Emperor Aurangzeb himself, in one of his farman, described azrani or the cheapness of grain and other items as a calamity. Managing the prices of commodities was a necessity for the financial performance of government.
In Sindh, the prices of essential commodities are regulated under the Sindh Essential Commodities Price Control and Prevention of Profiteering and Hoarding Act, 2005. As the name of the law suggests, it is to ward off the evil of overpricing, profiteering and hoarding. There are 25 essential commodities, including milk, powdered milk, milk for infants, vegetables, fruit, eggs, pulses, spices. The Deputy Commissioners are tasked with ensuring the law is followed.
As the controller general of prices of theirs districts, the DCs notify the prices while considering the production, transportation, storage cost of each item and then use punitive power to ensure that the prices are followed. Similar laws exist in all provinces but conditions are the same. The district administration tries but usually fails to live up to the expectations of the people. Everyday there is a story of how essential commodities are not properly priced.
The anger and frustration is real. People wait in long queues in the sweltering heat to buyrelatively cheaper sugar. Growers are forced to sell their wheat at cheaper rates to the government. If the government notifies a higher price, the produce of politically connected landowners is preferred over that of small-scale farmers. People head in droves to the sasta bazaars, to department stores with sales and hypermarkets.
Let us go back to Alauddin Khilji’s Delhi and go to a milk shop. Do you think that thedairyman would overcharge and take more money than the set price? It would have taken lots of courage to. Consider getting into an argument with him and in the meantime a beefyswashbuckling Ranveer Singh-type Alauddin Khilji shows up and catches the profiteer red-handed. What would Sultan have done to the market inspector who had failed to keep the milk seller in line?
Now fastforward to our times. Consider yourself the minister of anything visiting a sasta bazaar. It is Ramazan and you are fasting in temperatures flirting with above 35 degrees Celsius. As a politician, you are a keen to judge the people and their mood. You know they are angry and frustrated as they are not getting quality products at a sasta bazaar as the government promised. Their anger and frustration make you feel angry and frustrated. They are not pleased to see you, and you are not pleased with their reaction. What do you do? You take it out on the market inspector or assistant commissioner. You need to do this so that the people realize that both your and their anger and frustration is in complete harmony. You have found the culprit and have done what is in your power to make amends.
You had a choice to walk silently out of the bazaar but this would have shown you as a weak and powerless minister in a mighty government.
Now consider yourself the market inspector who has been reprimanded to the point of humiliation. You know you cannot do anything. You cannot argue or shout back. You cannot control the market; you cannot tell them that your sasta bazaar is part of a mighty organism that is controlled by a far-off nerve center. What can you do? The best is to tell the people, once the ordeal is over, that you are honest, hardworking and dedicated.
Who is at fault? I am not sure. An angry and frustrated minister is wrong to have such a reaction, but we can see how this was natural. An honest, hardworking and dedicated market inspector or Assistant Commissioner was right but not able to be effective. The people who expect the government to regulate prices or the government which actually thinks that it can regulate prices by price control and prevention of profiteering and hoarding acts are actually wrong. It would take a lot more than that.
One thing I am certain of and that is for the time being we can blame kings like Chandragupta Maurya and Alauddin Khilji and their antics to control prices. The Mauryan Empire survived a century, Khilji’s dynasty collapsed almost immediately after Alauddin’s demise. But what they did was give people the hope that the government was powerful enough to keep prices in check. Even their systems were not simple; they relied on a network of spies and informants that made it possible for them to keep things under control. Today’s state is much more complicated and economic measures have far-reaching consequences. We are a poor country, and our people are exposed to serious economic challenges. Price control of essential commodities for the benefit of people sounds to be a noble idea, but it needs more than price control magistrates.