Farmers in a paddy

The UNP-led government never misses an opportunity to ridicule former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s development strategy. It is now using the Mattala Airport for storing paddy!

Rajapaksa did an Ozymandias while in power. He got the Chinese to dig up land in Hambantota to construct a port and had them fill the sea off Colombo to build a city! The monstrous Lotus Tower continues to rise in spite of his fall.

At other airports we have jet engines roaring, but Mattala is as quiet as a hermitage and only animals roar in its vicinity. The Suriyawewa stadium is a monument to the arrogance and callousness of the Rajapaksa government which was very generous with public funds.

The use of the Mattala Airport for storing paddy, however, smacks of a political gimmick aimed at distracting the attention of the farmers in a paddy and the general public from the real issue—failure on the part of the Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) to purchase and store paddy.

In the run-up to the Jan. 08 presidential election, the UNP-led Opposition had a field day at the expense of the Rajapaksas, showing as it did pictures of farmers living in what is supposed to be the flight path at Mattala, leisurely drying their paddy on either side of the road leading to the airport. The new government has now gone a step ahead; it has stored paddy at the airport. (It may be recalled that the UNP, too, launched a project to build an ‘airport in the jungle’ in the Moneragala District while it was in power from 2001 to 2004.)

We believe that paddy should be stored not at the Mattala Airport but at the Hambantota Port which the government says is without ships. Warehouses there must be empty.

The UNP cannot pull the wool over the eyes of the discerning people who are aware that the present-day storage problems have arisen because the J. R. Jayewardene government savagely eviscerated the PMB, placing paddy farmers at the mercy of private traders. Had the PMB been developed as a modern organisation with necessary resources to purchase paddy from farmers at reasonable prices, store and mill it, depending on the country’s requirements, both the paddy grower and the consumer would have benefited.

Under post-1994 SLFP-led governments, too, paddy storage facilities were not developed properly. The less said about the Kumaratunga administration the better. It made right turns with left turn signals flashing! The SLFP, more or less, followed the UNP’s policies as regards paddy purchase and storage. The Rajapaksa government also did precious little to address post-harvest issues meaningfully. The rice trade under that government was controlled by a Polonnaruwa-based Mill Mafia with political connections. Those powerful traders effectively stifled state interventions to help farmers. Their sordid operations sent rice prices into the stratosphere. President Maithripala Sirisena is aware of the situation!

When powerful millers enjoy the freedom of the wild ass to do as they like; the PMB is weakened and state-owned storage facilities are divested it is only natural that paddy growers cannot dispose of their produce.

Sirikotha and the Darley Road office of the SLFP should also be used for storing excess paddy. For, the UNP and the SLFP are responsible for this sorry state of affairs. Part of the paddy stocks may also be sent to the JVP headquarters at Pelawatte. For, the Rathu Sahodarayas torched more than one half of the agrarian services centres during its 1987-89 uprising. On March 16, 2009, we quoted the then Agriculture and Agrarian Services Minister Maithripala Sirisena as having said that the JVP that had carried out arson attacks on 247 out of 545 agrarian service centres and destroyed large stocks of paddy together with paddy storage facilities during its reign of terror was now campaigning for farmers’ welfare. Minister Sirisena was addressing a public gathering after opening the renovated Gothatuwa Agrarian Service Centre which had been destroyed by the JVP two decades back.

It is time the politicians responsible for ruining the agricultural sector in general and the PMB in particular stopped blaming each other and put their heads, if any, together to find ways and means of storing paddy and giving the farmer a better deal. Political gimmicks won’t do.


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