ECONOMYNEXT – Both farmers and consumers in Sri Lanka have had to pay the price for the government’s inability to stand up to an oligopoly of rice millers, opposition lawmaker Anura Kumara Dissanayake said, after the government removed price controls on the island’s staple food.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday (29), Dissanayake accused President Gotabaya Rajpakasa’s administration of representing the interests of a “mafia” of rice millers.
The MP also claimed that the current leadership’s image as a fearless doer has waned.
“His true nature is being revealed the way an ice berg melts. It wasn’t just the gazettes [that were issued revoking previous purportedly tough decisions]. President Rajapaksa even visited rice retailers himself; there was a media circus about price controls imposed for rice.
“’We have a database’, they boasted, and the people cheered,” said the National People’s Power (NPP) MP.
“[Finance Minister] Basil Rajapaksa said ‘if they don’t sell at our prices, we’re ready to take over rice mills’. There was a big show,” he added.
The government, for its part, has also blamed the so called rice mafia on the price hike, as millers increased prices by 17 percent to 36 percent, depending on the variety of rice. The maximum retail price until its suspension on Monday (27) was 98 rupees for the Nadu variety, 103 rupees for Samba, and 125 rupees for Keeri Samba. The new prices for these varieties are, 115, 140 and 165 rupees respectively.
The ceiling prices were removed in the wake of sweeping disruptions in supply and distribution.
The government has also decided to import 100,000 tonnes of rice to be distributed through the state-run Sathosa retail outlets and cooperatives, according to Consumer Protection State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna.
Rice imports were controlled to keep prices up and help farmers but now consumers are helpless, Alagiyawanna told reporters on Tuesday.
The price controls on rice created shortages in shops, some farmers refused to sell rice after millers were discouraged from buying at higher prices. Rice millers were also raided in what critics said were televised dramas, the “media circus” referred to by MP Dissanayake.
“Then came the emergency regulations. Mills were raided and there was footage shown of rice being transported in lorries,” he said.
“The president has been hypnotised by this media circus. Gotabaya Rajapaks is a media fiction,” he said.
Dissanayake was also critical of Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage.
“The agriculture minister would routinely shout in parliament about how there is a rice mafia that they had managed to contain. They vouched not to import a single grain of rice. There was much boasting,” said the Janatha Vimuthki Peramuna (JVP) leader.
The MP said farmers, too, were affected by the price controls.
“Farmers were forced to tearfully sell their paddy, for pittance. In some cases it was lower than 40 rupees.
“[Authorities] even threatened not to provide the fertilizer subsidy if paddy wasn’t sold at the government price. So now paddy is no longer with the farmer. The biggest share of paddy is now with the mill owner,” he said.
Both the farmer and the consumer has had to pay the price, he said.
“If paddy was bought at a lower price, then the consumer should be able to purchase it at a lower price.
“The farmer couldn’t sell paddy at a fair price. The consumer couldn’t buy rice at a fair price,” he said.
“What we see is that millions of rupees were piled up between these mill owners and the ministers that enable them. Otherwise do you think they would do something so nonsensical? They always represented the mafia,” he added. (Colombo/Sep29/2021)