Looming spectre of rice shortage
Posted on January 7th, 2022

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Friday 7th January, 2022

Has the country become rudderless? This is the question one asks oneself when one sees widespread chaos. The political authority does not take responsibility for virtually anything and baulks at taking decisive action. The cooking gas shortage, which has lasted for weeks, is not likely to be over anytime soon. People have been calling upon the government to make an intervention to sort out the problem, but to no avail.

Perhaps, at this rate, it may not be necessary for the government to have the cooking gas supply restored at all. People may not have any need for gas soon, for they will be left without anything to cook at home. Essential commodities are in short supply, and their prices are so high that most people cannot afford them. Only alcohol and cigarettes are freely available, and perhaps liquor outlets are the only places where one does not see long lines of consumers. The government has gone out of its way to ensure the availability of these two commodities as if people’s lives were dependent on them.

Paddy farmers have been up in arms, unable to save their cultivations as they are without fertiliser. So are vegetable growers. Anything that is hurried runs the risk of being buried. The government’ organic farming drive is a case in point; it should have been carried out over a considerable period of time with the participation of all stakeholders. Instead, it was rushed, and we are where we are today—facing the prospect of a food crisis. Agricultural experts predict a drastic drop in the paddy production during the current cultivation season. Farmers are shown on television complaining of an unusual delay in their rice plants reaching the heading stage owing to lack of fertiliser. This presages trouble.

The government has offered to increase the guaranteed price of paddy from Rs. 50 to Rs. 75 as part of its recently unveiled relief package. But this will bring no relief to farmers in that private traders are already paying as much as Rs. 95 per kilo of paddy, and, on the other hand, there will be no paddy to be purchased soon. This was confirmed by President of the United Rice Producers’ Association (URPA) Mudith Perera, yesterday, at a media briefing. Warning that the country would face a severe rice shortage from the end of next month, he urged the government to assess the yield losses due to the fertiliser crisis urgently and take precautions to avert the anticipated rice shortage. His prognosis is disconcerting; yield losses will invariably necessitate rice imports. (However, before importing rice, the government ought to inspect the silos of big-time rice millers to check if paddy has been hoarded.)

The government will have to import 800,000 to 1,000,000 MT of rice to meet the shortfall in the domestic supply, at a cost of USD 450 million, according to the URPA chief. This is a huge amount of forex the country could hardly afford at this juncture. There are several external loan instalments to be paid this year, and the government desperately needs dollars.

URPA President Perera has warned that the purchasing price of paddy is likely to go up to Rs. 125 soon owing to yield losses. If what is feared comes to pass, rice consumption will be a luxury only the super-rich could afford.

Curiously, the government has not sat up and taken notice of the situation. Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardena is apparently living in a world of his own. He visits Pettah wholesalers’ warehouses, from time to time, and declares that there are enough stocks of rice. His cavalier attitude must be one of the reasons why the irate public have begun hooting at government leaders. The Agriculture Minister is also at sea. He is impervious to reason, and bellows rhetoric. He seems to think that his job is to antagonise farmers.

Long queues are seen in most parts of the country with people waiting to buy cooking gas, kerosene, milk powder, etc. Unless the government cares to start shoring up stocks of rice urgently, there will be queues for rice as well sooner than expected. This is something it should not take lightly for its own sake; rice shortages have led to regime changes in this country.

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