By Raisa Wickrematunge
The rising cost of living is a persistent issue. The recent recession together with local factors such as heavy rains have put upward pressure on prices. Bread is fast becoming a luxury, the buth packet is on a diet and people are queuing for cheap vegetables and coconuts.
Luckily, the government has come up with a unique plan to solve the problem. It was recently announced that a ‘home garden’ scheme will soon be implemented. Sri Lankans will grow their own vegetables in their backyards.
Agriculture Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena confirmed that Rs. 10,000 would be given to one million residences for this purpose.
A Rs. 10 billion project with hopes that, as Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa expressed, people would eat more healthy greens while also contributing to reduce prices.
Abeywardena said that the initial plan was to choose 100 from each village. With 14 grama sevaka divisions, the total came to about 1.4 million people, he said.
A team comprising of grama sevaka officials, agricultural development officers, Samurdhi officers and perhaps the Government Agent, would be instrumental in choosing the families who would receive the food growing allowance.
However, it hasn’t been explained on what criteria the families would be judged.
“There is no particular criteria other than that there must be sufficient land for cultivation, and the people must show enthusiasm. They must be able to prove that there are family members who will look after the crops,” Abeywardena explained.
He added that this initiative was not simply a home garden plan but rather one to improve general health, pointing out that 40% of children in Sri Lanka were malnourished. “One part of having a home garden project is that it is safe food on a plate,” he said. Abeywardena said that traces of insecticide and pesticide, widely used, would remain on cultivated vegetables and could lead to kidney problems.
He added that pregnant mothers often did not eat nutritious food due to a lack of education. “Most people think eating an apple will take care of vitamins. But it doesn’t. In fact, the veralu is much better. Gotukola and the beli fruit also have health benefits. The people should be educated about this,” Abeywardena said. In addition, he said that there were plans in the pipeline to give volunteers the possibility of rearing cows, goats and chickens. “It’s a long term process,” Abeywardena said.
However, he brushed off questions on whether the initiative was an attempt to lower vegetable prices. “Well, that is a side effect. At any given moment, an area could be suffering from food scarcity,” he claimed. The project would also ‘cushion’ those most vulnerable from the threat of rising prices and food shortage.
As such, he said the main aim of the project was simply to improve the health of the Sri Lankan populace.
An admirable aim indeed, but economist Harsha De Silva was unimpressed with the idea. “Actually, it shows the failure on the government’s part to get markets to work,” he said. He went on to explain that this appeared to grow out of a misplaced notion that one needed to be self sufficient. In fact, greater economies of scale (i.e lower costs, and so lower prices) could be gained by each person specialising in a chosen area of expertise. De Silva said that the practice of people growing their own food was reminiscent of the hardship during the Bandaranaike regime.
“I still remember a time we had to grow vegetables and our mothers had to stitch our clothes because there were not many stores,” he said. He added that a hallmark of development was a country moving away from producing food, clothes and other products and outsourcing to countries who could produce them more efficiently. In this sense, Sri Lanka was on a backward slide, he observed.
He added that having studied vegetable prices for the last eight to nine years, he had seen volatility. “The reason is the agricultural markets are not working properly. This has to be corrected, and not by getting the army to sell produce, nor by having those with nine to five jobs grow vegetables,” he said.
Yet it seems that this project could soon become law, at least according to Minister of Public Relations and Public Affairs, Mervyn Silva. The Minister recently prohibited the sale of tomatoes, green chillies, eggplant and ladies fingers in Kelaniya, even setting a time when the ban would take effect (mid April). He asked officials to provide seeds and fertiliser and called on Kelaniya residents to grow their own vegetables. Undoubtedly this was out of concern to the Kelaniya residents’ health, though why this area was considered particularly prone to obesity may never be known.
Indeed, the government has been concerned of the nation’s health and well-being of late. It started with cutting down on doughnuts and bread, and now has extended to eating more vegetables. Prices continue to rise and people continue to queue. But that, of course, is mere coincidence.