Prima has jacked up the wheat flour price by nine rupees per kilo again, causing the price of a loaf of bread to go up by three rupees. The kneejerk reaction of the government has been to pass the blame on to its opponents.
Last time, the government blamed the flour price hikes on a controversial clause that had been surreptitiously incorporated into the Consumer Affairs Authority Act in favour of Prima. It was claimed that a bribe of one billion rupees had been paid for that clause! That was a very serious allegation, which should have been investigated promptly. But, the person responsible for that has not yet been named. Nor has any action been taken to amend the Act to deprive Prima of the alleged freedom to effect price increases at will.
Minister of Trade and Consumer Affairs Bandula Gunawardena has vowed to take appropriate action against Prima. But, that vow will never be honoured, if experience is anything to go by. The Minister bellows out all sorts of noises and issues various threats but it is always Prima that has the last laugh. When another issue crops up and eclipses the flour price hikes, he always conveniently drops the matter and high prices are there to stay.
The most vociferous in the Opposition become the worst failures when they find themselves in power. What a song and dance Minister Gunawardena used to make of the high cost of living in his Opposition days. His speeches were full of fire and brimstone then and he would thunder in television debates condemning the government for its failure to manage the economy. Now that he has been tasked to bring down prices, he is trotting out lame excuses. (It looks as if the President were punishing him by keeping him as Minister of Trade.)
The reason Prima has given for the latest price hike is the price increases in the world market. Minister Guanawardena is duty bound to tell the people whether Prima is telling the truth. If Prima is hoodwinking consumers, then he must take stern action to stop the exploitation of the voiceless people. Litigation is a long drawn process and the people cannot wait till the cows come home to have paan at reasonable prices. The Minister may take recourse to the law but, first of all, he must import wheat flour urgently to bring down prices. However, the purpose will be lost if the quality of wheat flour to be imported is low, as was the case in the past.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has promised in his Budget 2008 to revive the co-operative system and revitalise the CWE. That needs to be done posthaste so that the State will have an efficient distribution network. If the government can ensure that sufficient stocks of wheat flour are maintained and made available to the public when necessary, that will be the best antidote to arbitrary price increases.
Minister Guanawardena ought to take a leaf out of the late Trade Minister Lalith Athulathmudali`s book. Once, the Pettah Mafia threatened to increase sugar prices. Lalith summoned them to his ministry and on the day of their meeting his supporters staged a protest opposite the Fort Railway Station demanding that the government import sugar to keep the unscrupulous importers at bay. Lalith very politely told the mudalalis that unless they changed their mind, he would have to accede to the people`s demand. The importers knew Lalith meant business and fell in line. Lalith had a vision and a strong CWE at his disposal and the traders knew he was not prepared to play footsie with them.
This country needs ministers of Lalith`s calibre!
The SLFP must be held answerable for having given a new lease of life to the monster that the UNP created. President Chandrika Kumaratunga was in power when the government had an opportunity to take over the Prima factory in keeping with the BOT agreement concerned for a song. But, for some strange reason, her government spurned that opportunity. Who stood to gain from that controversial deal?
It is not only separatist terror that must be defeated. Commercial terrorism, too, needs to be countered. Prices of essential commodities are determined by a handful of businessmen over the telephone. Rice prices are kept artificially high by a cartel of rice mill owners, some of whom are close to the ruling party politicians. A few months ago, we reported that the private sector was purchasing paddy at slightly higher prices, which the government couldn`t match. Their sinister objective is to obtain paddy, hoard it and manipulate the market. Farmers swallow agro chemicals, unable to settle their loans and consumers starve, while the middleman lives off the fat of the land. Of what use is Mahinda Chinthanaya?
Who really tampered with the Consumer Affairs Authority Act? Both Ravi Karunanayake and Rauf Hakeem have said they had nothing to do with the controversial section. We presume they are telling us the truth as, otherwise, the government propagandists would have torn them to shreds.
The Rathu Sahodarayas, who claim to be the people`s guardian angel, initially made a hue and cry about that controversial clause but have apparently dropped the issue. We don`t blame them for others` sins. But, the people cannot depend on either the SLFP or the UNP to know the truth as both of them are responsible for the creation of the monster. Will the JVP rise to the occasion?
If the Consumer Affairs Authority Act has helped Prima with price increases in any way, then it must be amended without delay. The government must be pressured to do so.
Ironically, the government which claims to have made a ruthless terrorist outfit eat humble pie has had a bloody nose at the hands of some commercial Mafiosi.
It is hoped that the government committee that has been appointed to find ways and means of controlling the high cost of living will adopt a no-holds-barred approach to dealing with such monsters.