‘Fodder’ for thought

- island.lk

Tuesday 20th September, 2022

Two Cabinet ministers have crossed swords over rice imports. Trade Minister Nalin Fernando has sought to rubbish Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera’s recent claim that imported rice should be fed to farm animals as it is unfit for human consumption. Why Fernando has seen red is understandable; the Agriculture Minister’s statement serves as a damning indictment of the Trade Ministry, which is responsible for importing rice. Amaraweera would have the public believe that he is trying to protect the interests of the local farming community by discouraging the public from consuming imported rice, and making it available to the livestock farmers who are facing a severe animal feed shortage. The question is why he did not raise objections, at Cabinet meetings, to the import of rice which, he says, is tainted with harmful agrochemicals? If imported rice contains toxins, then how can it be considered fit for animal consumption?

The practice of importing rice and selling it as animal feed is not of recent origin. It has been going on for decades. It is part of a strategy to further the interests of the Millers’ Mafia. Big-time millers curtail the release of their rice stocks to the market weeks before the commencement of paddy harvesting, thus causing prices to skyrocket, and prompting the government to import rice. Thereafter, they release enough rice to the market, bringing down prices so that they could buy paddy for a song. When locally-produced rice, which suits the palates of Sri Lankans more than foreign varieties, is freely available, imported rice stocks in the government warehouses end up as animal feed. Having exploited farmers and filled their silos with paddy, the big-time millers starve the market again, making the prices of rice rise steeply. Having sold its rice stocks as animal feed, the government finds itself in a situation where it cannot make effective market interventions to regulate prices. This is the name of the game. We have been writing about this for years but to no avail.

The state machinery is geared towards helping serve the interests of the wealthy rice millers who grease the palms of politicians and public officials. Small and medium-scale millers are dependent on bank loans to buy paddy, but banks do not release funds until the Millers’ Mafia has bought paddy on the cheap. By the time others start purchasing paddy, prices are high. The government does not allocate enough funds to the Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) so that the wealthy millers will be without competition. Thankfully, the Bank of Ceylon has taken some meaningful steps to sort out this problem, which however cannot be solved once and for all without state assistance; the government is doing precious little to help farmers; the Treasury is not providing security for the loans the PMB asks for, we are told.

The Agriculture Minister makes a lot of noise. The onus is on him to enable the PMB to secure enough funds ahead of the paddy harvesting time. He should also prevail on the Finance Minister to ensure that loans are granted to small and medium-scale millers expeditiously to compete with the Millers’ Mafia. If the government takes action to make funds available to the competitors of the powerful millers to purchase paddy, the interests of both the farmer and the consumer could be protected.

We are not short of politicians shedding copious tears for paddy farmers in dire financial straits. But all of them are responsible for the predicament of the farming community. Powerful millers openly defy the Consumer Affairs Authority, and flout laws with impunity thanks to their political connections. Siripala Gamlath, the owner of Nipuna Mills, blamed for hoarding paddy, and jacking up rice prices, is an SLPP MP. Dudley Sirisena, who owns Araliya Mills, also accused of hoarding and market manipulations, is a younger brother of former President Maithripala Sirisena, who is Minister Amaraweera’s party leader.

In 2012, Sirisena blamed the UNP for having destroyed the PMB and created a situation where the paddy farmers were exploited in every conceivable manner. He said the UNP had sold the Polonnaruwa PMB building worth more than Rs. 50 million for a mere Rs. 275,000 and used it as a party office. He accused the JVP of having torched as many as 240 Agrarian Service Centres with paddy storage facilities in the late 1980s. Three years later, he closed ranks with the UNP and the JVP to secure the presidency! Today, the SLPP and the UNP have joined forces to protect their mutual interests. This may explain why anti-politics is on the rise in this country, and the resentful people take to the streets, demanding the ouster of all 225 MPs.

Let Amaraweera and other government politicians bellowing rhetoric and promising to help the local farming community, while living high on the hog at the expense of the public, be urged to fish or cut bait.

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