Small is useful
Posted on March 30th, 2020

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Tuesday 31st March, 2020

Time was when there were retail shops, or sillara kades, at every nook and cranny of the country, selling various commodities, including grocery items, at reasonable prices. Catering as they did mostly to low income groups, they could keep prices low as they had no overheads as such. They were open, from morn till night, daily. They stood the ordinary people in good stead in that essentials were available at affordable prices. But, most of these small businesses could not withstand the tide of consumerism, which paved the way for the rapid expansion of giant supermarket chains.

The need for ensuring the existence of the sillara kades is felt today more than ever, thanks to the current countrywide lockdown, coupled with a strictly enforced curfew. When the curfew, which is in force to prevent mass gatherings on account of the spread of Covid-19, is relaxed, people, desperate to buy essentials, throng streets and line up near supermarkets, which get stripped bare in next to no time. There can also be seen lines of people near the existing retail shops, where goods are cheaper than at supermarkets. Fashionably dressed men and women also join these queues, which are not long, for want of a better alternative. 

We have, in this space, urged successive governments to take action to protect retailers as their elimination will place the ordinary public at the mercy of giant businesses. Supermarkets are, no doubt, necessary, in the modern society, and the state is duty bound to look after their interests, as well, but the existence of small businesses, which cater to the ordinary people, must also be ensured. It may be recalled that the Rice Mafia is now exploiting both the farmer and the consumer, having driven most of the small-time millers out of business. No government can control the big-time rice millers, who have become a law unto themselves. This is what happens when small businesses go belly up.

We peddle no argument that retailers are driven by altruism; they, too, seek to maximise profit, which is the name of the game, but they are capable of keeping prices relatively low and making goods freely available at the grassroots level. Hence the need to protect them.

Meanwhile, what would have been the situation if Sathosa had been privatised and the co-operative outlets closed down? The state would have had no way of controlling the distribution and sale of essential commodities. Sathosa is playing a vital role in making goods available to the ordinary people at the prices prescribed by the government.

Former Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who is heading the Presidential Task Force, appointed to manage the current situation, said, the other day, that the co-operative outlets had to be strengthened to streamline the distribution of essential commodities, at the grassroots level. Following the 1977 regime change, which led to the unbridled economic liberalisation, the co-operative movement was neglected and left to wither on the vine. Its survival has been a miracle. 

Now that the country has realised the value of the co-operative outlets and Sathosa, once again, the government should consider developing them a top priority. Similarly, action should be taken to help retailers stay afloat. It is hoped that the lessons learnt during the Covid-19 crisis won’t be forgotten when normalcy returns.

Let all political parties make a written pledge, in their election manifestos, to develop Sathosa and the network of cooperative outlets and ensure the protection of retailers. 

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