Jai Jawan, Jai Kissan, Jai Louis Vuitton

ASHWINI A. writes from Bangalore: When told that the peasantry did not have enough bread to eat, Marie Antoinette, the queen of Louis XVI leading up to the French Revolution, is reported to have haughtily said: “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche (Let them eat cake).”

Historians now say that it wasn’t the much-maligned queen who said so; that it was Marie-Therese, the wife of Louis XIV, 100 years before. And that “let them eat cake” wasn’t as cold a sentiment as it seems, because French law required bakers to sell fancy breads (like cake) at the same low price as the plain breads if they ran out of the latter.

Only a similar confusion over who proposed it, and what it means, can rescue the latest disgrace heaped upon the peasantry of India by the elected kings of our democratic, socialist, secular republic—namely, the Members of Parliament: That selling liquor high in the air can prevent our farmers from committing suicide down below.

Was it Rajiv Shukla, a former journalist who is now a Rajya Sabha member, BCCI vice-president and television mogul, who proposed the move, as this NDTV report suggests. Or did others like M.S. Gill, the former chief election commissioner, pipe in at the meeting of the 12-member consultative committee attached to the civil aviation ministry, as a Times of India report suggests.

The NDTV report says that it was Shukla who proposed the move to allow alcohol on flights, and that he was supported by Gill, Tarlochan Singh and the newspaper baron Vijay Darda. Hmmm. Two Sardars and two journos. It stands to order they should have played a part in a matter concerning booze.

According to Gill,

“Members from Maharashtra raised the issue saying the government should consider allowing Indian wine on domestic flights in the interests of horticulture farmers.”

Thankfully, the chief of United Breweries and Kingfisher Airlines Vijay Mallya, who had earlier proposed the move, was not present. But Rahul Gandhi, son of the president of the Congress and the chairperson of the UPA, which came to power on the shoulders of the aam admi, was.

This roll-call is necessary because the suggestion exposes the priorities of our modern-day MPs like nothing before.

This is the week when a study by Prof. K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) of official data of farmers suicides between 1997 and 2005, collated the National Crime Records Bureau, has been made public. Each number telling its own horrific story.

Close to 150,000 farmers have killed themselves. Nearly 100,000 of these deaths were in five States—Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala. Three of the five have been at the vanguard of “reforms”. There has been a 105-127 per cent in farmers suicides in the first two States since 1997.

There is a farmer suicide every 30 minutes somewhere in the country.

Maharashtra with 29,000 suicides has been described as the “graveyard of farmers” by P. Sainath, the Magsaysay Award winning rural affairs editor of The Hindu, reporting the findings. While general suicides fell in that State, farmer suicides rose. In worst-hit Vidarbha, one in every four families was in trouble.

And yet, all that our MPs can think of is selling alcohol in the air to allieviate their ills!

The discussion that took place on the subject at yesterday’s meeting is not included in the PIB press release. Which means the ground is being readied for a fait accompli. An earlier ploy by Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar to get wine classified as a food item to encourage wine consumption to help grape farmers has not met fruition yet, but, boy, will this move be allowed to suffer any delays?

Is there any study to back the claims that farmers will be helped? Precisely how many farmers will be helped by the move to allow in-flight alcohol? Will the airlines buy directly from the affected farmers or will some corporate rake in the moolah while the farmers fumble around for the hagga?

And does anybody really suspect that the welfare of grape farmers is all that is on the MPs’ minds and that this backdoor entry of alcohol will it stop at wine?

Certainly, it is debatable whether alcohol should be allowed in flights. Certainly, the whole country cannot eternally moan the farmers suicides. Certainly, airline passengers are entitled to a good time. But whether alcohol should be allowed or not is a decision that should be arrived at without any hint of conflict of interest. Sadly, our MPs are allowing their good offices to promote the business interests of a colleague by standing on the shoulders of farmers bent double by debts and worse.

Farmers may have a small chance fighting the vagaries of nature, the merciless lender, the funny seeds. But can they ever survive politicians and businessmen-cum-politicians intent on taking them for a ride in the high skies?