Better believe them!
By Brajendra Singh
Many of my readers are likely to take the above title with a pinch of salt, considering it to be flippant or frivolous. After all, what is there about the humble samosa, a snack beloved of the masses, to believe or not to believe?
I have only one request for those with such apprehensions. Kindly go through the three mini-stories given below, and only then make your judgement.
Feeling the pinch
Inflation was running rampant. Prices were rising at unprecedented rates. Even basic staples such as rice, atta(flour), dal(lentils), and cooking oil were getting out of reach for millions or poor citizens. As for the much better-off middle class, it too was feeling the pinch as fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and such items, which they regularly consumed, were becoming prohibitively expensive, thus forcing them to reduce their ‘living standards’.
One of the sectors, among many, affected fairly badly by this phenomenon, was the manufacture of samosas. Potatoes and green peas, used almost universally as their filling, had more than doubled in price. Rates of maida(refined flour), essential for making the outer shell, had jumped up by over 30 per cent. Oil used for frying was up by a similar amount; and as for spices, which gave samosas their pungency – their sky-high prices left only a bitter taste in the mouth.
The miseries inflicted on the samosas manufacturers, did not stop with just the cost of ingredient going through the roof. Establishment charges, including those of electricity (at commercial rates) and gas for cooking (ditto), as well as the wages of the staff who prepared and fried the samosas, and then sold them, had all increased. Finally, the owners of the shops themselves, living in an inflation-wracked economic time, needed to make extra profits, just to maintain their existing standard of living.
Something had to be done, they concluded, and done quickly, otherwise they would be financially ruined. After working out production and other costs, and discussing the matter in detail among themselves, the samosa manufacturers decided to increases the price of their product; from eight rupees per piece to 10 rupees per piece.
Now, samosas are an extremely popular snack in almost the entire Indian sub-continent. They are consumed widely by rich and poor alike. The working class enjoys them the rich relish them, while for students they are often the only alternative to noodles. Morning, afternoon, or evening; any time of the day could be called samosa time. The sudden increase in the price of the samosa, thus caused consternation and predictably, an uproar followed. Those most vocal included daily wagers, shop assistants, domestic workers and other low-earning members of society. Sensing an opportunity to gain popularity, politicians, would-be netas, self-appointed do-gooders and NGO activists jumped into the fray meeting were held, rallies organised, slogans raised and speeches made. Speaker screamed that greedy businessmen were ensuring that the masses would starve, and that this was the last nail in the coffins of the poor. TRP-hungry media joined the sensation seekers. Newspapers ran editorials and articles on the subject. In interview after interview on prime time TV, housewives, factory workers, roadside vendors and other ’aam adami’ types condemned the increases in the price of samosas.
The hullabaloo was at its loudest in Punjab, where serving of samosas to guests, along with tea, was almost de rigueur. A delegation of prominent citizens went to meet the chief minister, and requested him to take some action against what they claimed, was an arbitrary price rise of an essential commodity. The chief minister, impressed with the credentials of many of the members, solemnly promised to look into the matter.
After the delegation had left, the chief minister called a meeting, where in the pros and cons of the case were gone into. These consisted mainly of calculating the voting potential of samosa sellers vis-à-vis that of the samosa consumers. Quite naturally, considering their much larger numbers, the latter won hands down. Thus, just a few days later, the Punjab government issued an ordinance, to the effect that henceforth the price of samosas could not exceed six rupees a piece. This figure had not been arrived at after calculating the cost of inputs, overheads and profits, as commonsense demanded. The figure was the amount that government economists felt was what the average voter could afford to spend on his daily snack; which was what political considerations dictated.
The samosa makers were aghast. The price control order had caught them totally unawares. They felt that they had only two alternatives left. They could either stop making samosa, or continue making them and sustain heavy losses.
In either case they were doomed. The third alternative, that of making a mini-samosa, small enough so that six rupees a piece would give them some profit, did cross the mind of a few of them. But they hurriedly dismissed the thought, for they realised that the macho resident of Punjab would never reconcile themselves to any major reduction in their favourite snack.
That meant that there was only one way that the samosa makers could survive. They went to court. They petitioned the Punjab high court, requesting it to quash the government’s order, calling it arbitrary, illegal unconstitutional (since it denied them their right to earn a livelihood) and biased. The high court refused to entertain their petition, stating that the honourable judges did not feel it would be proper to interfere in the matter of controlling the price of essential foodstuffs. It was a subject exclusively in the domain of the executive.
Unfazed by this rejection, the samosa makers then filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court. They submitted detailed calculations to prove that it was impossible to produce a proper samosa for six rupees. They also painted a grim picture as to what was likely to happen and what public anger could lead to, if samosas vanished from the market.
After considerable legal arguments and due consideration the Supreme Court accepted the samosa makers’ plea and set aside the Punjab government’s samosa price fixing order. Samosas were back to ten rupees a piece. And that is where the matter stands today.
(The above write-up is not a piece of fiction. The events mentioned in it, actually took place some time back, in Pakistan)
The state government was holding an emergency meeting. Shortage of funds had become chronic and development work had almost coma to a halt. There were complaints by in the hundred coming from almost all the districts. Roads were not being repaired, panchayat and gram-sabha funds had not been disbursed, non-practising…. The list was almost unending.
One of the major reasons for this financial crisis was the recent imposition of total prohibition in the state. Now alcohol is a major generator of revenue in a large number of states including the one we are referring to. For instance, in Delhi, there was a time when dozens of flyovers were built, using only the proceeds from the excise duty on alcohol.
However, the ruling coalition in the state had come to power by promising to impose prohibition if they were elected. They had there by become the rulers and so, in keeping with their pre-poll promise, consumption of alcohol was totally banned throughout the state. The state treasury suffered a heavy loss, but the question of lifting the ban just did not arise. It would be political suicide.
At their wit’s end to generate some extra funds, the state government decided to impose a 13.5 per cent luxury tax on some additional items, apart from things like gems, jewellery, cars, airconditioners etc, that were now considered to have become deluxe. The finalised list of such new ‘luxuries’ included, among other items, mosquito repellants, sweet, cosmetics, hair oil and samosas. So each time some resident ate samosa, the state treasury became richer.
By this one ‘stroke of the pen’, the humble samosa had finally come into its own and attained luxury status.
(The above tax was imposed in January 2016, in Bihar.)
The latest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records had just reached India. Some patriotic students of Lucknow University were going through it to locate desi items, which were considered to be the topmost in the world. They found plenty of them including the man with the longest nails, the lady with the longest hair the highest landing ground for aircraft and so on. But one thing surprised them. In the food section, there was the world’s largest cake, the world’s longest pizza and dozens of other entries, but there was is no mention of anything Indian. The matter was considered to be serious. A meeting of the student body was held, where speaker after speaker became in indignant should a country like India, with cooking traditions going back thousands of years, allow upstart newcomers like the USA, UK and Italy get ahead of it? The answer was unanimous. Certainly not! They then decided to do something to rectify the situation.
First of all, they had to decide what to make. It would, of course, have to be something spectacular, besides having to have pan-Indian acceptance. After much discussion and the ruling out of dosas, rosogollas and half-a dozen other edible items, they finally decided to make the world’s biggest samosa.
So a dozen students got together and in august 2016, produced a gigantic samosa weighing 387.7 kgs. To make it they used 1075 quintals of wheat flour, two quintals of potatoes and 90 litres of oil. They hoped that the next edition of the Guinness Book would include their masterpiece. I think that you, dear reader, will now agree with me, that even an everyday item of consumption like the samosa, can generate extraordinary stories.