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Raffique Shah


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Champagne taste, mauby pockets

By Raffique Shah
June 29, 2008

With NFM announcing last week that the price of wheat flour is set to rise another 29 per cent, there was the usual groaning and moaning from consumers, blaming "de govament" for rising food prices. Really, you'd think these people have just landed from Mars, that they are unaware of the global food crisis, of inflation eating into people's pockets just about everywhere in the world. You'd think, too, that by now everyone would have adjusted their spending habits to meet escalating costs through focussing on "needs" as opposed to "wants".

There are many negatives in the country for which the Government must shoulder blame, if only because it happens to be in power, in control of the Treasury. Take Works Minister Colm Imbert's $37 million, 100-year bridge over the troubled Caroni River. From the moment I saw this free-span steel-monstrosity that I feared driving across, my question was: why not spend a few million dollars more-or less-and build a proper steel-and-concrete structure that would indeed last 100 years?

But I won't dare ask Colm that question. With an impish grin and glib words, he'd make me look like the stupidest person on earth. If I ask Prime Minister Patrick Manning why, in his quixotic quest to make Port of Spain the best-skyline-capital in the region, he is also creating the most congested and constipated city in the world, he'd probably turn his rear-end in my direction and emit methane to make me faint. Take that! And while crime is a societal problem, the Government and its law enforcement agencies have a prime responsibility to bring relief to its many victims. The crime czars, though, will tell us: we'll have it under control in another three years-by which time half of us are dead!

So yes, governments are in the direct line of fire when things go wrong for the governed. Even in the case of food prices, they must take some blame, if only for not having the vision to keep food production at acceptable levels over the years. The feeling was that this country's oil-and-gas resources would forever insulate us from imported food prices. What they did not envisage is that high oil prices also means other high prices-among them fertilisers, shipping, tillage-all of which impact on food prices. Government should also have been advised that improved standards of living in countries as large as Russia, India and China would result in increased demand for food. It's a complex combination of factors that led us to this crisis that has made cheap food a thing of the past.

Which brings me back to consumers griping over flour prices: what do they expect the Government to do about it? Subsidise the price of wheat, rice, edible oils, ham and jam? Of course we have the money to do that now-just as we have the means to subsidise fuels to the tune of around $3 billion a year, taxes and duties excluded. But how far can we expect State funding to cater for our wild consumerism? Yes, we must support the aged and the infirm and the disabled who are unwitting victims of a global disaster-in-the-making. And yes, we should ensure the working-poor are lifted to income levels where they can cope with rising prices.

But the buck does not stop with government-at least not only with government. It stops with us, too. We are the ones who choose to fritter away our few dollars on the latest mobile phones and daily phone-card-purchases. Talk is not cheap, but it's more important than food. After years of nutrition-education, women still insist on buying the most expensive baby foods even as they waste babies' most nutritious intake, breast-milk. We insist on owning vehicles we can ill-afford, spending money on gas and expensive parts as a priority over food in our stomachs. We must have 12-foot plasma television sets in our homes: the "old" 27-inch boob-tube (which I still own, and which functions very well, thank you) must be thrown out with the garbage-or find new places in bedrooms.

I can go on and on looking into the mirror for those who are afraid to so do lest they do not recognise the images they see. We must wear the latest brand-name clothes and footwear that cost, even though these carry no warranties to convert ugly-into-pretty. We no longer trim our own nails or care for our faces: manicures, pedicures and facials are a must-have, even for men. Look, there are people in this country, just as there are people elsewhere, who are filthy rich, and who can afford these luxuries. These are the few, and for them million-dollar cars, multi-million-dollar mansions and designer-wear are trifles.

For the many, food counts first, health must be high on our lists, and comfortable living within our means is desirable. Flour is not the elixir of life: many nutritionists and doctors will tell you it equals death. Let's stop complaining and start acting. We can't live a champagne lifestyle on mauby pockets.