Crack down on godowns
Posted on December 23rd, 2019

Editorial Courtesy The Island

The prices of rice and vegetables have gone into the stratosphere, nay mesosphere, and sent both Citizen Perera and the newly formed caretaker government reeling. Inclement weather, which has wreaked havoc on farming areas and caused disruptions to the transport network have also led to sharp increases in the prices of the locally produced food items. Such price hikes are also seasonal. But they are mostly due to deplorable market manipulations and the absence of storage facilities and an efficient distribution network. This situation, which has come about due to lack of government interventions, has enabled unscrupulous traders to fleece both the producer and the consumer alike.

One may recall that about 10 years ago, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa revealed that vegetables, grown in Ranna, reached nearby Tangalle, after being taken all the way to Dambulla, which is about 300 km away. This is how big-time traders controlled the vegetable prices, he said. But his government did precious little to protect producers and consumers. The same goes for all other food items whose prices are jacked up by wholesalers who manipulate the market to make unconscionable profits. Even the price of an egg laid by a hen in a far-flung area is said to be determined by traders in Pettah.

There are some varieties of vegetables, which perish where they grow without being harvested. Murunga is a case in point; owing to extremely low prices it fetches in the areas where it grows freely, especially in the dry zone, it almost goes unharvested, though it is expensive elsewhere. If such vegetables can be transported where there is a market for them, the public will benefit.

There has been a proposal for setting up solar powered cold storage facilities, in the vegetable producing areas, to prevent the farmers’ produce from decaying in the event of surpluses or adverse weather conditions or other such problems. It has gone unheeded. Bumper harvests which should be a blessing to farmers become a curse for them because they cannot dispose of their produce at reasonable prices. It is not seldom that we witness protests where irate farmers destroy colossal amounts of pumpkins, etc., on the roadside.

A left-wing firebrand in the SLPP-led government has reportedly revealed how to bring down vegetable prices; he wants the public to stop buying them so that a decrease in demand for them will result in a drop in their prices! We are reminded of the popular local saying, ‘bale thiyanakota mole ne, mole thiyanakota bale ne,’ (when one has power one has no brains, and when one has brains one has no power.)

The people have already reduced the consumption of vegetables to a bare minimum, but the prices still remain very high. We are not short of contortionists in the garb of ministers, blessed with hypermobility, which enables their feet to get into their big mouths easily. Another such double-jointed ministerial potentate once claimed that a family of three could live on a monthly income of Rs. 7,500 if it managed its resources frugally!

Meanwhile, attempts are being made to control the prices of rice. However welcome such measures may be, the government is barking up the wrong tree. The general consensus is that the country has enough stocks of paddy, but the big-time mill owners with political connections are not releasing them to the market so as to prevent the prices of rice from dropping. Raids are being conducted on business places in Colombo, but sprawling warehouse complexes wherein paddy is hoarded, in areas such as Polonnaruwa, have been spared. Our money is on the Millers’ Mafia having the last laugh, for the new government, in spite of its rhetoric, has stopped short of conducting raids on the godowns in the North Central Province in search of hoarded paddy. The will of the government seems to stop where the interests of the big-time businesses begin! Governments don’t hesitate to subjugate the interests of the public to their political compulsions. The SLPP-led caretaker government is no exception.

The Paddy Marketing Board (PMD) suffered a crippling blow at the hands of the JRJ government, which sacrificed vital state ventures at the altar of economic liberalisation. It has been revived but cannot compete with the buccaneering private millers. It allegedly buys the paddy stocks that private traders reject. That the PMD has a pivotal role to play in protecting the rice growers and consumers by making market interventions where necessary cannot be overemphasised. A prerequisite for making it work efficiently is to ensure that it is properly managed.

Some big-time rice mill owners have offered to co-operate with the government and release some of their stocks to the market to help maintain rice prices at the stipulated levels. Their offer smacks of a tactical manoeuvre to prevent the government from getting into a desperate situation where it will be forced to act against the Millers’ Mafia.

The government will have to get tough with the paddy hoarders if the problem of market manipulation is to be solved once and for all.

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