India’s pricey tomatoes, Laxman’s Common Man and climate change

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL August 11, 2023
'A leaky tap or the price of tomatoes matters more to people than an avalanche of rhetoric at the UN'

Someone put an R. K. Laxman cartoon on Facebook the other day. It was about the extortionate price of tomatoes in India and even though it appeared in the early 1970s, it was apposite.

For tomatoes are enormously expensive in India today. Prices soared by 400 per cent a couple weeks ago and then after a brief drop on account of government intervention, they went back up again.

The reason is not hard to find. Basically, it’s about supply disruptions due to heavy rainfall in key tomato producing regions. A news agency in India quoted a spokesman for Mother Dairy, a subsidiary of the country’s National Dairy Development Board and seller of milk, milk products, fruit and veg and other foodstuffs, to say that weather abnormalities had disrupted tomato supplies nationwide since late June.

Back in the 1970s, Laxman’s “Common Man” – the central character of his cartoons and symbol of the average long-suffering Indian – wasn’t thinking about tomato prices in the context of climate change. How could he? There was no awareness of it.

But now it’s inescapable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said India will be one of the countries most affected by the climate crisis. A Cambridge study published in April said that heat waves are putting “unprecedented burdens” on India’s agriculture, as much as its economy and public health system. As for tomatoes, Sriram Gadve, president of India’s Vegetable Growers Association, pointed to the unremitting heatwaves from April to June this year. Tomato plants weren’t able to flower in time to fruit for July and August, he said, and the “tomato yield this year was impacted by 70 per cent”.

Laxman’s Common Man appeared in The Times of India, my old newspaper and the one I still write for every month, for 61 years, starting in 1951.

As newly-independent India underwent the ructions that come with nation-building,  the balding, bespectacled man man in a check coat and dhoti (a traditional garment for men in rural India) wordlessly surveyed the political, social and cultural landscape of the young nation.    As one of my former editors, the late Inder Malhotra, wrote in the early 1970s, the Common Man “has become a symbol of the long suffering average Indian who tries to dismiss with a laugh the pomposity of the politicians in power, the petty tyrannies of bureaucrats and life’s many ironies and multiplying misfortunes”.

Had the Common Man still been around, I bet he’d have been looking askance at the hash politicians are making of the green policies necessary to the circumstances of today. For, to quote Malhotra again, both the Common Man and Laxman, his creator, had a close focus interest in bread and butter issues, firmly believing that “a leaky tap in the bathroom or the price of tomatoes matters more to the people than an avalanche of rhetoric at the UN or a shortfall in foreign exchange reserves.”

Quite so.