Nuts, grains & polls
Posted on December 1st, 2017

The National Election Commission (NEC) has said it is confident of holding the much-delayed local government elections, at last, on a single day early next year. This announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time for the government, which did its damnedest to postpone the mini polls further, but in vain. Public resentment is palpable due to economic woes. There is apparently no end in sight to the continuous rise in the general price level. Official inflation rates can be deceptive as is public knowledge; the prices of essential commodities have gone into the stratosphere

Aggravating people’s economic woes, rice prices continue to rise. Coconut prices which shot up some moons ago remain sticky. Low income groups are the worst affected; they constitute the majority of voters. A government that fails to make rice freely available at reasonable prices asks for trouble at elections. Rice once caused the fall of a government and another regime committed political hara-kiri by imposing restrictions on rice consumption.

The incumbent government made an intervention, on the eve of the presentation of its budget 2018, to reduce the prices of several food items. It was a salutary move, which benefited the low and middle income groups, but, unfortunately, price controls come with a short expiry date. Traders know how to circumvent such measures. They have jacked up prices again. Today, there is hardly any difference between sprats and sharks where their prices are concerned.

The worst times for a country are the best times for politicians out of power; they exploit burning issues to gain political traction. The Joint Opposition (JO) has sought to make the most of the current situation. It has attributed the high prices of rice to bulk purchases of that staple commodity by a beer company. JO firebrand MP Bandula Gunawardena, on Wednesday, lashed out at the government for permitting a particular brewery, owned by one of the yahapalana allies, to buy rice in the local market to produce beer, thus causing its prices to go through the roof. (The JO got the name of the beer company wrong!)

Time was when a UNP-led Opposition made a hue and cry about what it called an ethanol river flowing through the country during the Rajapaksa government which had some of its backers in the lucrative alcohol business. Ironically, today, a UNP-led government stands accused of causing the country to be flooded with beer.

It is wrong for the government to allow beer companies to use rice as a raw material, especially when its prices are high. But, breweries alone cannot be blamed for the high prices of rice. There is a powerful millers’ Mafia, manipulating the rice market. We have written extensively about this politically backed cartel which exploits the producer and the consumer alike. They purchase paddy from farmers at extremely low prices and hoard it, creating an artificial shortage so that they can sell it at extortionate prices.

The Rajapaksa government did precious little to neutralise the millers’ Mafia though the JO members who were in its Cabinet are today shedding copious tears for the hapless consumer. The previous regime, however, revived the Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) and helped the paddy farmers reduce the cost of production, to some extent, by making fertilizer available at subsidised rates. But, it baulked at taking on the millers’ Mafia. The incumbent government ought to strengthen the PMB further as a countervailing force against the powerful millers’ cartel to protect the interests of both the rice growers and consumers as a national priority. But, the question is whether it is keen to do so because the kith and kin of some of the yahapalana leaders are prominent members of the millers’ Mafia.

Meanwhile, the allegation that huge stocks of rice are used for manufacturing beer ought to be investigated and remedial action taken. One man’s cheers must not be another man’s tears. Our happy-go-lucky Finance Minister stirred up a hornets’ nest by claiming in Parliament the other day during the budget debate that beer was better than soft drinks. We hope he won’t claim it is far better to ‘drink’ rice in the form of beer than to eat it.

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