The Institute of Post Harvest Technology is reported to be planning to popularise a new flour mixture, which is eighty per cent wheat flour and twenty per cent rice flour. The new scheme, it is believed, will help save a great deal of foreign exchange.
With such innovative projects, it is not only money that we will be able to save but the lives of the rice growers as well. We are in for a bumper harvest in the Maha season. The government has resorted to `panic selling` of paddy in its stores. It is making a desperate attempt to dispose of the existing paddy stocks with a zero profit margin so as to ensure the storage of the forthcoming harvest. The government is going to incur a loss of over 120 million rupees as a result, our sister paper the Divaina reported on Feb. 24.
It looks as if we had the wrong national symbol. The lion is too good an animal for us. In the past, the lion may have been proud to sit on our national flag. But today, we are putting that brave, majestic animal to shame. The modern day Sri Lanka should have chosen the cat as the national symbol?a cat that has just defecated on a rock. For, we, as a nation, have been acting just like that proverbial cat that eased himself on a rock and didn`t know what to do with the stinking mess. Why is this digression from rice to cats and other obnoxious stuff?
The bedrock of the culture of this country is a small grain, known as rice. Food security was never a problem in this country until the modern day political potentates came on the scene. In addition to vast reservoirs, this country had enough storage facilities for paddy. The Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) became the modern version of that system to store the surplus paddy and release it systematically to the market so that both the grower and the consumer gained. True, the PMB had its flaws, but it stood the paddy farmers in good stead, as it helped keep the much dreaded middleman at bay. What did we do to that vital institution?
We like that cat on the rock dismantled the PMB. Nay, we sacrificed it on the altar of the free market economy. Let it be added immediately that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with an open economy, lest this comment should be misconstrued as a defence for a closed economy. Whether an economy is good or bad depends on the way it is handled. We have that monumental ability to throw the baby and retain the dirty bathwater. So, we, true to form, threw caution to the winds and did away with the PMB. Now, for want of storage facilities, the government has had to dispose of paddy for a song. When large stocks of paddy are released to the market, as any student of the dismal science knows, prices plummet in the run up to the harvesting season. Such ad hoc measures militate against the very objective of protecting the farmer! If the government cannot ensure adequate storage facilities for the forthcoming bumper harvest without resorting to harebrained methods, it might as well have funds ready for the purchase of coffins for those farmers?there are 1.8 million rice growers?who, unable to sell their paddy, will be driven to suicide.
It is not just the storage facilities that we lack. We lack a national policy for agriculture as well. A bumper harvest is a blessing in any other country. But, in this one time Granary of the East, it has paradoxically become a curse. Farmers cannot dispose of their produce, without being exploited by the private traders, though government promises to ensure floor prices. There are disturbing reports of certain government officials in cahoots with the private traders?some of whom are in politics and capable of swaying the government policy!?rejecting the paddy from farmers on flimsy grounds to make them sell it at cheaper prices to the private sector. It is alleged that the government thereafter purchases the same rejected paddy from the private traders at higher prices. As a result, in areas like Anuradhapura, paddy has come to fetch as little as ten rupees per kilo for the poor farmers. Most farmers are shifting from paddy to banana cultivation. Little wonder we are on the fast track to the banana state status, if we are not already there! Remember the paan Chinthana leader, who wanted to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese, who brought paan to this country, once wanted the paddy fields in the Colombo district filled up. It is sad that even the kurakkan Chinthana leader is not doing enough for the rice growers!
Rice is not just only our staple food. It is, as was said earlier the bedrock of Sri Lanka`s culture. The ancient engineering wonders like the huge tanks, giant dagabas, magnificent temples and allied works of art and engineering all have a foundation of rice. With the bricks that went into the Jethavana Stupa complex, it is said, a wall which is five feet tall and one foot wide could be built across the country! Those who created such marvels were powered by rice, weren`t they? Today, the members of the paan eating public cannot at least carry a loaf of bread to the Sigiri summit without panting and several stops on the way. (Most of them can`t say paan, as it is popularly said, by the time they reach the top!) But, their rice eating ancestors carried not just small weights but tons of bricks and huge boulders to build that breathtaking rock fortress. Power of rice! That is the difference between the two epochs characterised by the Haal Chinthanaya and the Paan Chinthanaya. (When Sigiri frescos were defaced by a vandal about three decades ago, we had to seek foreign help to restore them! The ancient artists who created the Sigiri damsels must be turning in their graves, not so much because of the act of vandalism but because today we have had to go behind foreigners for the restoration of their masterpieces.)
The fallout of centuries of Paan Chinthanaya has been the creation of a society dependent on the outside world for not only its food supplies but also virtually everything else. Isn`t it a crying shame that the descendants of those who built that unrivalled engineering marvel Jaya Ganga, are dependent on foreigners to build their sewers today? How can a nation dependent on foreigners for both the provision of `what goes in` and the disposal of `what comes out` aspire to prosperity?
The Institute of Post Harvest Technology initiative is a step in the right direction, though we can`t bring ourselves to agree to the ratio (eighty per cent of wheat flour and twenty per cent of rice flour). We would rather have it the other way round! But, the Institute deserves credit for its effort.
A national campaign is called for to promote the rice eating habit, short of a ban on wheat flour. A prerequisite for such a movement will be a Haal Chinthanaya as opposed to Paan and Kurakkan Chinthanayas!