The government has declared rice an essential
commodity. Wow! What a brilliant government we have! What else
did the government worthies think rice had been all these years?
Were they under the impression that it was a luxury?
It is only wishful thinking that simply because
of the government declaration, rice prices will plummet
overnight and everything will be hunky dory for the hapless
consumer from tomorrow. There must be follow-up action, if time
buying is not the real intention of the government. We bet our
bottom dollar that the government has resorted to dilatory
tactics hoping that the next harvest will bring the prices down
What we are witnessing by way of soaring rice
prices is a manifestation of commercial terrorism which has
raised its ugly head due to the government’s impotence in
dealing with traders. Prices usually rise in time of scarcity.
But, rice is not in short supply. It is freely available at high
prices. Therefore, the government’s effort to boost the supply
with imported rice will not yield the intended results unless
the imports reach the people direct at the prices recommended by
the government. It was a mistake for the government, as
President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself admitted in his budget
speech last November, to give tax concessions to private
traders. The benefits of tax waivers didn’t trickle down to the
people. Likewise, there is a strong possibility of rice the
government imports ending in private traders’ stores to be sold
at high prices.
It is being suggested in some quarters that the
government raid the sprawling storage facilities of private
traders where paddy is said to be hoarded. Such measures will be
effective, as was said earlier, if there is a shortage of rice,
which is not the problem at present. The high prices are due to
collusion of rice mill owners and importers who ensure adequate
supplies are available at exorbitant prices. Even if the country
were to get a bumper harvest next time, the produce would be
sucked in by these unscrupulous elements and released to the
market in such a way that prices would still remain high. The
government may be able to force open their stores and release
more rice to the market but they will still be in a position to
manipulate prices over the telephone as they are doing at
Such raids are a tall order for a government
which lacks the courage to punish even its ministers who have
brought it into disrepute through their violence. It cannot at
least kick out a joker like Mervyn without any popular
support—he polled only a little over 2,000 votes at the last
General Election. The Rice Mafia has within its ranks siblings
of powerful government politicians who are running with the
people and hunting with their kith and kin who allegedly
squander millions of rupees at casinos.
The use of paddy for manufacturing fodder is
also said to have contributed to the steep rise in rice prices.
One is reminded of Sugathapala de Silva’s famous book Ballo
Bath Kathi (Dogs eat rice). The present situation where
politicians are living in clover with animals eating rice meant
for human consumption, while the people are suffering without
rice may prompt someone to write a book titled Saththu bath
kathi (Animals eat rice). It is imperative that the
government ensure rice won’t be used to feed animals at the
expense of humans.
If the stocks of imported rice are to take the
desired effect on the market, the government will have to use
its own distribution network to market them. The government is
sanguine about doing that but obviously the co-operative network
is not equal to the task, given their financial situation and
inefficiency. The people cannot wait till the co-operatives are
revived, however important that project may be in the long run.
Now that the ruling party politicians are emulating their
Opposition counterparts who are visiting polas (fairs) as
a vote catching exercise, the government should give serious
thought to making rice, preferably in packets carrying the State
emblem, available at those places that cater to the middle and
lower income groups. Assistance of local government bodies may
be sought to open rice stalls in other marketplaces as well to
sell rice at reasonable prices. Desperate remedies are called
for! If such a project could be sustained for a week or so, the
private traders will have to match the government prices or find
their stocks going to waste. However, the heaviest resistance to
such a move is likely to come not from outside but from within
the government. After all, this is a country where politicians
rise in defence of even drug barons in trouble.
The JVP has rightly pointed out that the rice to
be imported by the government at this juncture will stand the
Rice Mafia in good stead in that market saturation will bring
down the price of paddy to be harvested shortly.
Rice is a wonder grain. Besides being the
building block of this country’s civilisation, it has
demonstrated its ability to either make or break governments. If
the government fails to bring rice within the reach of the
resentful public, it will be digging its political grave. When
the wolf is at the door, patriotism usually flies out of the
window. On the other hand, the people are aware that the high
rice prices are not due to war but the sheer inefficiency of the
government in handling the market.
The government has, through its failure to
address the economic woes of the people, made a mockery of its
very name, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
Will it live up to its name?