Memories of Development: The Marketing Department buying and selling Red Onions
Posted on October 20th, 2019

Garvin Karunaratne, former G.A. Matara

Red Onions was a major crop produced in the Jaffna Peninsula. Gerry Stevens the Assistant Commissioner ran round in circles to ensure that the cooperatives bought red onions from producers at the premium price we offered and handed the stocks to our stores where we stored them and dispatched them by rail to all parts of the country. He must have dispatched around thirty or more wagonloads a day during the season. This was easily his major task.

I covered the Southern Province. My main task was buying paddy, storing it, issuing paddy for milling and also rice milling. I had the largest rice mill at Ambalantota, a mill that worked 24 hours a day for six days a week.  Marketing Red Onions, during the red onion season, was a very minor part of my job.

Daily five wagon loads of Red Onions were dispatched from Jaffna to Boosa and my Divisional Marketing Officer stationed at Galle was tasked to clear the wagon loads to get them to his stores and sell the Red Onions to dealers at a wholesale price and also ensure that red onions are retailed at the Fair Price Shop we had at Galle.  Very often I would come to Galle, do a round of inspections of my paddy store at Boosa and also inspect our Wholesale Red Onion Store and our Fair Price Shop to see that red onions are available.

I had done my round of inspections and that included visiting private dealers at random to check whether they had stocks of red onions. If any dealer did not have red onions I would speak to the owner and inquire why. When visiting private stores my method was to linger with people buying red onions, inquiring for the price. Instead of asking for the price I would rather hear sales being done.

I fixed the retail as well as the wholesale prices and I had to ensure that my red onion store had stocks I kept a low margin of some fifteen percent to cover up wastage and handling. That was how the Marketing Department controlled inflation.  Inflation as far as sales of products is concerned is caused by the traders keeping a fat margin of profit. The MD ate into that profit.

The Marketing Department had a variety of activities to ensure that traders did not fleece the people.

The MD had a restaurant at the Kataragama Festival, where every eat was offered at rock bottom prices. The two years I worked in the South included supervising this unit. We had selected the best of staff from all the other units. The  MD very unofficially controlled the prices at which other hotels provided food. That MD restaurant was always full of people. The MD also had a bakery in Colombo that produced quality bread and short eats at very cheap rates.

The IMF dictated to the Government of President Jayawardena that the MD had to be abolished and it was done in around 1979. Since then the sky is the limit for traders to make a fantastic profit. The other day I visited a friend of mine at Pangiriwatta. Almost next to his house a four-story house had come up overnight. I inquired from my friend.

 He is a vegetable dealer in the Colombo market. He is rolling in money. He buys a new car every year.”

That was not possible when the Marketing Department was functional

We all Assistant Commissioners- some fifteen of us from all corners of the island were summoned in the first week of each month for a Conference.  We have to bring with us the profit and loss sheet for every Fair Price Shop and every Store and at Galle, it included the wholesale unit of selling Red Onions. Our Commissioner, BLW Fernando, a chartered accountant would scan each profit and loss sheet. As his eyes moved he would figure out the profit margin we had kept. If any Assistant Commissioner had kept a margin of over fifteen percent one would be hauled over the coals. We had somehow to keep a very low margin, not make a loss, the ideal was to keep to around five to ten percent profit. It was a difficult task, but we had to be careful, otherwise, hell will be let loose

One day I had inspected our  Fair Price Shop and the Red Onion Store at Galle visited at random some private traders and was satisfied that red onions were being sold at a reasonable rate and available. I got back to Ambalantota by night.

The next morning as I went to my office at Ambalantota a postal peon brought a telegram. Those were the days when phones never worked. From my office to get a phone call one had to first phone the postmaster and request a phone call giving the number I wish to call. I had to wait long. It was simpler to send a telegram.

The telegram stated. Member of Parliament Dahanayake reports shortages of red onions in Galle. Inspect at the report at once.”

I saw stars. I hooked to my Peugeot 203, a fast car, and took off,  back to Galle. I went to our stores, wholesale as well as retail and found plenty of red onions and I visited many private dealers and saw them retailing red onions. I had been there the earlier day too. I was very angry. Running all over the Southern Province like a mad dog my task was to ensure that producers could hand over their produce at the premium prices we offered without difficulty- that was paddy. Again as far as Red Onions was concerned during the Red Onion season I had to see that Red Onions were available to people at a reasonably low price. My empire looked shattered. 

Finally, I decided to meet Mr. Dahanayake. I knew him well, meeting him at Conferences and fairly closely associating him. It was dusk and I thought I could catch him at his residence. I went there but he was not in. I had to meet him somehow and I waited patiently. The telegram had almost killed the reputation I had built up in the Department. It was a long wait. He turned up at around ten o clock.

Garvin. What brings you here at this time?”

I was quick to show him the telegram,

Sir, this is not true. I was in Galle yesterday and Red Onions were readily available at our shops, at our wholesale unit as well as with private traders. I have gone round today too and have found that there has not been a shortage of red onions.  Why have you sent this telegram? You should have contacted me if you find a problem. He did not reply for a full five minutes. I wondered why.

You know Garvin one fellow came and said that there is a shortage of red onions in Galle and to satisfy him  I sent a telegram to the Minister. You know we have to keep everyone happy otherwise I will not get their vote at the next elections.”

But my Commissioner will have a poor opinion of my work and will conclude that I am inefficient.”

“Leave that to me. I will be meeting the Minister tomorrow and will tell him that everything is perfect in Galle as far as the Marketing Department is concerned, as has always been.’

That was how politics work with us officers.

Days passed by and the Head Office did not get in touch with me. Evidently Mr. Dahanayake had kept to his word.

That Marketing Department with its Vegetable and Fruit Purchasing Scheme, which effectively controlled inflation is no more. The Jayawardena Government abolished it on the advice of the IMF and traders today make hay, while the consumers suffer.

Food for thought. That is the only method of controlling inflation.

Since leaving the Administrative Service after serving for eighteen long years I have studied and lived in five countries and have also traveled far and wide, but have never come across any country that has a Vegetable and Fruit Purchasing Scheme like what we had in the Marketing Department. It was built up by administrators R.H.Basset and BLW Fernando and fine-tuned to serve the country.  It provided fair prices, above than what the traders offered to the producers all over the island, provided produce at cheap rates to consumers and also made Sri Lanka self-sufficient in vegetables and fruit preparations. Today producers do not produce as they are not assured of a reasonable price.

Garvin Karunaratne, former G.A. Matara


Author of:
How the IMF Sabotaged Third World Development(kindle/Godages, 2017

17 Responses to “Memories of Development: The Marketing Department buying and selling Red Onions”

  1. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    GARVIN !!! I like to read your articles, as it takes me back to TRIPOLI days. I used to go with my father in our Bola Morris eight to buy a range of vegetables. Father had a friend, Commissioner Alwis, who always came to help.The good old days. Now Iam in USA.

  2. aloy Says:

    “The Jayawardena Government abolished it on the advice of the IMF and traders today make hay, while the consumers suffer.”

    Food for thought:
    Who owns that Marketing Dept. today?. I understand it now belongs to JR’s minister whose daughter married a Pakistani; perhaps he told IMF to give that advice and is now his under their control. Similarly RDA’s RCDC that maintained all state roads und constructed bridges (including Getambe bridge) was destroyed on the advice of WB and today it is the famous Maganeguma. It was RCDC that helped to create Sri Lankan companies like Maga etc. which are major players in the construction sector.

    Entities that helped SL have been destroyed by the UNP.

  3. Randeniyage Says:

    “Entities that helped SL have been destroyed by the UNP and the SLFP ” should be the correct version. CTB was destroyed by SLFP+LSSP.

  4. aloy Says:

    “Rathu Sahodarayas” destroyed the country as well as the youths sending 60 odd thousands of them to the tyre pyres. They are still on it. See what JVP is doing to universities and also to the country by ganging up with those who are trying to destroy SL They are taking bribes and have a very ritch party for their survival
    ARPICO man who survived is just one of them and what a successful business he has built after his inventions that has captured world markets. If we had all those 60000 of them they would have been the economic backbone of our country.

    Randeniyage, please remove your coloured glasses to see the actual picture.

  5. Randeniyage Says:

    No I can’t remove that clear glass ( which you see as coloured) !
    Please don’t underestimate people or judge people. There are lot of things you don’t know but I know. Similarly there are lot of things you know and I don’t know. So, let us share these.
    My country is my only glass. I don’t trust ANYONE but clear policies.

  6. aloy Says:

    AK did not use “Mutti Kaasi” or the beggar’s bowl to acquire a house in Ireland or travel first class on a flight to Europe. no did Wasantha S got so much money for him to solicit help from tax consultants as to how he should launder it. When they invaded CB and confronted the governor and gave him two weeks ultimatum, I though they would invade it again and hang him if he didn’t comply. But nothing of that sort happened and he was was going after tax consultants and that fact he didn’t deny when it was exposed by SL-Vlog.

    Gota winning does not mean the end of story. He or someone else will have to clean Diyawanna (the augean stables) either by doing what Hitler did or abolishing the system by a proclamation (or promulgating a decree). If he doesn’t do it someone else will do it after the second round next year.
    So, people should get ready for that from now itself if Bumiputhras want to survive.

  7. Randeniyage Says:

    Where did you collect wrong information that I am wearing JVP glass ? How wrong it is ! ( Although bettwer than assuming UNP)
    Looks like you have got a very dangerous incurable decease !
    Sorry I cannot cure you here, but if I meet you in Sri Lanka I will promise I will cure you.

    Look, I can see many dangers you have completely blind to. Even Dilrook had that decease but he had the wisdom to cure himself.

    But let me stress that ( you can see it from my every comment) I DO NOT HAVE FAITH on PERSONS. I only look for evidence available to me which I believe 100%. I don’t see any evidence of bad action reversing. I don’t see anyone coming up with removal of Pallath Sabha. Not even JVP.

  8. aloy Says:


    Two sets of people tried to cure me: one was an extremist outfit when they set one of my workers to knock me out. The reason being my efforts in pointing out the disparities in population growth among communities in SL around 2013. Was that a decease or condition of a healthy mind to foresee whats going to happen?. I was proved to be correct.

    The second was when I took a flight home from S’pore two years ago. You can guess who that can be. I commented about it in CT with a snipping of the post that I made in this site, which prompted them to take such an action.

    Anyway let us allow others to make useful comments, if any.

  9. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    ALOY !!!

    MD Brand name will be perpetual. It will remain forever. MD is owned by Mr.Furkhan Dossa, and Mrs Renuka Dossa, Chairman and Managing Director, respectively, amongst other Directors, and the Company is known as LANKA CANNERIES LTD. I worked for both of them at Lanka Canneries, as a Consultant on Systems Operational Procedures and Document Formatting, till I left for USA. They were beautiful people to work with. I keep in touch with them on and off by email. Mrs. Renuka is Mr. Ronnie Demels daughter.Her mother Mallika and my wife has been class-mates at St.Bridgets or Museaus. My memory is hanging on I believe.

  10. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    Just one more thing. MR. and MRS Dossa owns Hunters Group.

  11. aloy Says:


    So, the info I got was accurate. The people may be good personally but their interests differ from those stated at the formation of the company’s objectives. And that is what Garvin laments about. Profits should not be the objective.
    I was the project manager of their fruit canning factory at Attanagalla during its construction in mid 70s.

  12. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:



  13. Ananda-USA Says:

    Aloy said

    ““Rathu Sahodarayas” destroyed the country as well as the youths sending 60 odd thousands of them to the tyre pyres. They are still on it. ”

    I COMPLETELY agree!

    I would not trust the JVP farther than I can throw an Elephant! Less, I would say!

    There is only ONE thing they care about, SOMEHOW, SOMEWAY, SOMETIME climbing into POWER, and then burning the ladder behind them!

    No matter what sheepskins they wear now, they are POL POTS! TRUST THEM TO YOUR PERIL!

  14. Randeniyage Says:

    MD brand is still on and selling here in Australia.
    New brands are flooding and I want alert readers of the brand “Derana”. Don’t buy.
    I bought a bottled “Karavala Bedum”. There was no Karaval there. “Bones and Skin Bedum” should have been more appropriate. I was disgusted of their dishonesty and I wrote to them. No reply for 1 year. I bought another one to check whether there was any improvement recently. EVEN WORSE !

    Our political system and Administration System has become Derana Karavala Bedum!

    Bones and skin to people and Karavala to New Politician Devoted Class. They are devoted because they get the Karavala.

    Upon reflecting, I realised no murderer has succeeded in Dharmadveepa.
    Prabhakaran – gone !
    Premadaasa – gone !
    Wijeweera – gone !
    Batalanda – still alive but look at him, he couldn’t become the king. Will be gone soon!

  15. Dilrook Says:

    Those great industrial initiatives were destroyed by persons of all major Sinhala majority parties in present parliament – UNP, SLFP, SLPP, LSSP and JVP.

    At the same time entities that provided profit to the state were destroyed making them national burdens, by taking them over by the government.

    e.g. Srilankan Airlines

    There is no need to privatize profitable state ventures and there is no need to takeover to the government, already profitable and otherwise unprofitable entities. This right balance must be achieved.

    What crimes our leaders have done to the country!

  16. Dilrook Says:


    You got a point. Killers of Sinhala people never survived or they failed to get power again. Will it still hold true?

  17. aloy Says:

    A common thread that runs from Garvin’s write up to the last line of Dilrook above, is nationalism. Who initiated it?: It is none other than Bandaranayakas, the heroes of Garvin, I suppose. While Mrs. B relied on self sufficiency, Mr. B had a vision for SL in English, science and technology. For that he set up a plan by improving the English knowledge of rural students and also giving science scholarships to bright students from villages. During his short tenure he made a profound impact on world politics also. He, being an eloquent speaker, spoke for three hours in UN explaining why China should be allowed in to the world stage. Perhaps he had to pay with his life for that. But he has been proved right.

    So, the bottom line is, party he formed should not die.

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