Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Monday told Rajya Sabha that the prices of food items were under control, and there was no need for panic. He put the blame for the rise in food and fuel prices, and the increase in railway fares, squarely on the previous UPA government.
Speaking days before he presents the budget, Jaitley said the government was being attacked even before it had outlined its financial roadmap. The rail budget will be presented on Tuesday, and the general budget on Thursday.
Opposition parties, including the Congress, BSP, SP, Left and Trinamool Congress, expressed dissatisfaction with Jaitley’s response and walked out. But the NCP’s Sharad Pawar stayed on, as did members from the DMK.
“The rail fare hike is your legacy which you have left behind. Now what the NDA government does will be seen in the railway budget,” Jaitley said after the government agreed to a short-duration discussion on rising prices on the first day of Parliament’s budget session.
The Finance Minister, in his reply to the discussion, said that the 41-day-old Narendra Modi government had taken immediate steps to contain prices of food items, unlike the previous dispensation, which allowed the price of onion to rise to Rs 100 per kg.
“Government is committed to contain it (inflation) because we consider it a serious and sensitive matter. There is sufficient supply (of potato and onion) and therefore there is no reason for panic,” he said.
The minister said the Food and Consumer Affairs Department would continue to take steps to contain the rise in the prices of onion and potato, and noted that the output of the two kitchen essentials had increased.
Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said strict action would be taken against the hoarders and middlemen who were responsible for price rise.
Jaitley said the Centre had issued directives to states to crack down on hoarding, put a cap on stockholding, and raised the minimum export price for onion and potato.
“For the last two years, prices of onion and potato have been rising. The then government used to wake up after prices had already risen. We started taking steps immediately when the prices touched Rs 25 per kg,” he said. To a specific question by CPM leader Sitaram Yechury on whether futures trading in farm commodities would be banned, the minister said, “the government will keep the suggestion in mind”.
Jaitley said the decision to raise railway passenger fares and freight rates was taken by the UPA government on February 11, and the present government had only implemented it.
Railway Minister D V Sadananda Gowda, Jaitley said, had a “Hobson’s choice” as the financial health of the Railways was extremely poor. “Does he (Gowda) follow the weak-kneed policies of his predecessor that unpopular decisions can’t be taken even if they are in national interest, or does he then take this decision and place this fact before the country that to run the railways this decision was necessary?” he said.
Targeted by the Trinamool’s Derek O’Brien, Jaitley hit back at Trinamool chief and former railway minister Mamata Banerjee: “I do not know whether those who handled Railways in the past are the original sinners for the current situation.” On the Re 1 hike in the price of diesel, the Finance Minister said the government was implementing the UPA’s policy of gradual monthly increases.