Lack of food has Poles bickering among themselves

Poland's worsening food shortages are threatening to ignite a new conflict between town and countryside. Private farmers are selling less and less livestock to the state butchers. The government seems to drift and dither, and the people are left waiting for a little more food and the farmers for the tools to product it.

Meanwhile, Poland's second crisis winter is closing in and bringing an ever more frightening urgency to all these problems.

Government-Solidarity talks to work out what must be done were expected to begin Oct. 15. The agreement to hold talks was announced after the union turned down a government proposal to include the official unions, Solidarity's rivals, in a permanent working group to cope with the food situation.

Already some Solidarity groups have suggested the introduction of some form of the obligatory sales or even requisitioning to boost the meager supplies of meat on city markets.

The government is not likely to heed that proposal except as a last resort if food supplies get even worse -- as they are all too likely to do.

Even the most strictly collectivized communist states have long since eliminated the compulsory deliveries once levied on the private plots of members of the collectives. In Poland, which has been decollectivized since 1956 and in which nearly 80 percent of agricultural land is in private hands, reinstating such a practice would spark more resistance from peasants who already feel they are blamed unfairly for the food situation.

At the recent convention of the Solidarity union, Jan Kulaj, the president of Rural Solidarity (the peanut union formed last March), told delegates they had got the wrong end of the stick and that they had given too little attention to agriculture's real problems.

Urban unionists, he said, seemed to forget that people could share only what was produced. He had a sharp answer for hints that the farmers, instead of selling food to the market, were concealing it and waiting for higher prices.

"What farmers are waiting for is not higher prices," he said, "but, above all , for the means of production. If the government does not assure these -- and if we are not backed in this demand by the workers -- then the struggle to save agriculture will be lost."

This year's disastrous decline in coal production means big shortages for agriculture as well as for Poland's power stations. Millions of homes are likely to be underheated this winter.

And no significant progress has been made on government promises to assure the private farms adequate deliveries of machinery and other supplies.

An incident related in a Warsaw newspaper Oct. 13 points up the frustration growing in the country: Some men waylaid a farmer and compelled him to let them have a pig he planned to sell on the free market. They paid for it -- but only at the fixed price prevailing at the state butchers, which is one-third what he could have gotten from a "free" sale.

The example could be infectious as the meat shortage persists. There has been an official warning that no improvement is in sight this month or next -- not even restoration of the ration cut made in August.

The weather is already bringing the first icy winter sleet. The urban heating system for apartment and office blocks starts Oct. 16. But the authorized maximum temperature is only 18 degrees C. (67 degrees F.) Rural people are being told they must depend more on wood.

The only bright note is the reports of a good harvest: 2 million tons more grain and double the potatoes and sugar beet crops of last year. Although sugar is still officially rationed, supply no longer seems to be a problem.

But the scarcity of meat and almost all other essentials persists.

Recent Sunday nights have seen traffic snarls on all the road leading into the capital as people fortunate enough to have cars return from the country after private foraging expeditions or visits to rural "contacts" to barter or pay exorbitant prices for a roast or leg of pork.

Poland is due to get more food from European Community supluses before the end of the year. But that can touch only the fringe of the problem. It cannot offset such things as a 600,000 ton drop this year in the amount of meat farmers have sold the state markets.

Meanwhile, action seems as hamstrung as ever as the fact that the leadership of the Communist Party itself is still gravely split on the reform program, quite apart from its growing rivalry with Solidarity.

This is mirrored in the report presented at the first two days of debate this week in the Warsaw party committee, whose leaders are hard-liners, on the eve of a meeting of the full national committee Oct. 16 and 17.

The report struck an even sharper demand than usual for firmer action against the union's "camouflaged" anticommunism and a purge of party "reformers" identified with Solidarity's alleged political ambitions. The "liberalism" of the party's central leadership was also criticized, prompting more speculation about changes. But these seem still excluded, if only because another reshuffle of the same personnel would do nothing to encourage public confidence in government performance.

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