Mohammad Shafi Pandit, IAS, Jammu & Kashmir
Promoting consumer resistance against exploitation by the traders
About 85 per cent of Kashmiris eat non-vegetarian food. It is estimated that Jammu and Kashmir annually consume a whopping 51,000 tonnes of mutton worth Rs 2000 crore approximately, of which about half is imported from the neighbouring states, especially Rajasthan. The quantity of mutton consumed by the people has been growing at a rate higher than that of the population growth, because of improvement, over the years, in their capacity to pay. Quite obviously, therefore, availability of mutton at reasonable prices has always been a sensitive issue, with the people, especially in Kashmir valley. The prices of mutton have always been fixed by the Consumer Affairs wing of the government, based on the advice of the district administration. In the city of Srinagar, the rates are based on the recommendation of the Divisional Commissioner. A Citizens’ Advisory Council, comprising representatives from all walks of life, was always taken into confidence, in dealing with matters of common public concern. The rates fixed by the administration have always been broadly followed, within a certain tolerance limit, not exceeding 5-10%.
Towards the end of 1987, while I was posted as the Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, the mutton wholesalers decided to hike the prices of mutton, unilaterally, without taking the administration into confidence. At first, I tried to talk to the representatives of the wholesalers of mutton, and assured them that rates would be appropriately hiked after taking into account all the relevant factors. But they were defiant and continued with their illegal actions. This involved public interest, on the one hand, and the prestige and effectiveness of administration, on the other.
- After taking the then Chief Minister, Dr. Farooq Abdullah into confidence, I took several punitive measures to discipline the wholesale traders (referred to in the local parlance as Kothedars), including their arrests (from various locations, Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar), cancellation/suspension of their trading licenses, and issuance of new wholesaler licenses to new applicants from mutton dealers.
- I also realized that legal action was not enough and enduring, and recalled what we had been taught (during our training at the National Academy of Administration), by our professor of Economics, Mr. Monga, that the prices of commodities could be kept under control, only if the demand could be reduced. This involved the difficult task of persuading the consumers to give up, or at least reduce, the consumption of meat for a limited period.
- I enlisted the support of a very distinguished and highly respected physician, Dr. G Q Allaqaband, and together, we started an all-out campaign, for convincing the public about the adverse effects of meat consumption on health. While Dr. Allaqaband participated in several interviews, on television and radio, explaining the medical justification for reducing meat consumption, I enlisted the support of the media as well as public for starting a consumer resistance movement against getting exploited at the hands of wholesale traders. I was lucky enough to get willing cooperation from the media as well as the people, and they reposed tremendous confidence in me. Lots of write ups appeared in the newspapers, urging the people to give up meat consumption temporarily, in order to support the endeavours of the divisional administration to discipline the black marketers. It was a rare development, unseen ever before, that the administration received full support from all the three organs of State, the legislators, the executive, and the judiciary, as well as the fourth estate, and the people, in whose interest this action was being taken. Thus, all the stake holders were on the same page.
- I also called upon one of the public sector undertakings, Sheep and Sheep Products Development Board, to organize a limited supply of meat through their trucks, which would be used as mobile meat shops, moving from one locality to another. This met only a small portion of the demand but convinced the people about the genuineness of the campaign launched by the administration. What was remarkable about the public response to this effort was that people would stand in queue, for hours, in a disciplined manner, waiting for their turn, and even exhorted others to cooperate, in order to show solidarity with the administration.
- I, and a few other like-minded persons from various walks of life, including doctors, journalists, social activists and other opinion builders, started a social reform movement, under the banner of Samaj Sudhar Society, urging people to avoid ostentatious expenditure on marriage and other functions. The immediate thrust was on urging the people to avoid wasteful consumption of meat in ‘wazwan ‘, the traditional feast served on marriages.
- This situation continued for several months. The people, almost giving up meat consumption, for more than three months, was seen by one and all as no less than a miraculous development. The demand fell and butchers didn’t have demand for whatever little supplies they could muster. During this period, they shifted to other vocations.
- Meanwhile, there were attempts to bribe me and intimidate me, but I didn’t budge. I understand that there were attempts made to bribe the political executive as well. Public rumors have it that they had their way with some politicians. But, to be fair, rumors always need verification.
- The defiant wholesalers, finally, surrendered, and made a submission for conforming to the revised prices to be fixed by the administration. We responded positively and set the process in motion. Based on the recommendation of the Citizens’ Council, tempered marginally by the then Chief Minister, who, by then, had become inclined to give some weightage to political wisdom, as well, the revised rates were fixed, which prevailed, as effectively as before.
This episode created a lasting impact on the minds of the local people, and even after a lapse of three decades, people of that generation keep mentioning about it to their younger ones. It is gathered that this also became a case study in at least one administrative institute of the country.