Mumbai, Feb. 28
One did not know that a culinary wave of pasta-consumption had swept through India until Budget 2006 recognised it, with the Finance Minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, completely exempting pasta (along with condensed milk and yeast and other items) from excise duty.
Of course, he slashed by half the excise duty on other food items in the ready-to-eat and instant mix forms, including idli-dosa mixes, which attracted titters from the house, perhaps because of the items' popularity or because they are native to the Finance Minister's home State.
Still, many viewers were nonplussed. Why would idli-dosa mixes attract an 8 per cent excise duty and pasta none? Had the Italian dish become so popular that it fetched the attention of the Finance Minister who wanted to provide it duty-free to his countrymen? Also, why condensed milk?
The head of a supermarket chain tried to explain: "There are many avenues available for eating idli-dosa. You can make it at home, you can buy fresh dough made on the spot from supermarkets (or sold in stores supplied by the Dharavi cottage industry) and you can buy these instant mixes. And they are cheap enough." One can eat pasta outside, (generally prohibitively expensive) or buy dried pasta and make it at home. And if condensed milk is cheaper, more people can savour it, he said.
One must not seek motives, said a senior industrialist watching the Budget. Having systematically ploughed through the macro-stuff such as infrastructure, banking and what not, budget makers must have lost steam when it came to the smaller things, randomly sampling here and there and sentencing duties on this and that. Budget makers are only human and must be forgiven for losing their sense of proportion now and then, he said.
When Mr Chidambaram's noted that old age pension for destitute persons of Rs 75 a month is woefully inadequate, everyone (some were even shocked) nodded gravely in agreement. But when the new pension was announced at Rs 200 a month, there was spontaneous laughter and a new sense of shock. "Even a full-time yogi in a cave eating two bananas a day cannot live on that," noted one senior budget-watcher.