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Let there be rice!

Of late, there have been numerous complaints of a scarcity of rice and high prices. The government has blamed hoarding for this situation and promised tough action against wholesalers and millers, who have denied the charge.

The government cannot absolve itself of the blame for hoarding, if that is the real cause of the rice scarcity, as some of its prominent members are involved in the rice business. Minister Siripala Gamlath and a brother of Minister Maithripala Sirisena are two big-time rice millers known for their ability to sway the market with huge stocks of paddy and rice in their possession.

Although the official inflation figures are impressive, prices of food items and other essential commodities remain high and are likely to soar further during the festive season and in the run-up to the presidential election. A government intervention is therefore called for to bring the situation under control.

Minister Bandula Gunawardena was heard boasting the other day that there had been a record increase in the CWE's turnover. It is a matter of happiness. If a public institution fares well, it is good for the people. The State must have a trading instrument at its disposal to control the supplies of essential goods. But, the CWE is not strong enough at present, unlike in the past, to compete with the private sector and stabilise price levels in times of crisis. When some ruling party politicians and their kith and kin are involved in the lucrative rice trade, it is doubtful whether the government really wants to go the whole hog to tame the Rice Mafia and bring relief to the public.

What is needed is urgent action and not empty rhetoric. There is no reason why the government should keep issuing warnings to the unscrupulous traders accused of hoarding rice. It must pluck up the courage to crack down on them, confiscate the unlawfully held stocks, if any, and release them to the market. In the alternative, rice must be imported posthaste, prices brought down to affordable levels and hoarders asked to have the pleasure of consuming their stocks themselves!

The CWE, we believe, still has adequate storage facilities and is in a position to control the release of imported rice to the market to stabilise prices without hurting the local producers. Anyway, high prices of either rice or other locally produced food items, do not benefit farmers as such, because they only help maximise the middleman's profits.

In this country, politics and rice are inseparably interlinked. Governments have been voted out of power because of a measure of rice, so to speak. One of the reasons why the United Front government was kicked out of power by an irate public in 1977 was a chronic shortage of rice aggravated by the much detested haal polu (barriers set up at various locations to control the transportation of rice).

Rice consumption has got into our genes over the millennia and doomed is a government that fails to ensure its supply at reasonable prices. Therefore, the government has to step in to help the rice eating public––for its own sake. Else, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had better gird himself to face a huge protest vote next month. All is quiet on the northern front but the government cannot afford to ignore the kitchen front, where female generals are on the warpath.

When the wolf is at the door, it may be said, patriotism of many of people flies out of the window. So, the Rice Mafia could be working according to a secret plan. It is up to the government to figure out what is really happening in the rice market and take remedial action. That is what governments are there for! The bottom line is that rice needs to be made freely available at affordable prices.

The government claims that steps have already been taken to import rice, but the proof of the promised rice is in the eating!

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