The government has declared rice an essential commodity. Wow! What a brilliant government we have! What else did the government worthies think rice had been all these years? Were they under the impression that it was a luxury?
It is only wishful thinking that simply because of the government declaration, rice prices will plummet overnight and everything will be hunky dory for the hapless consumer from tomorrow. There must be follow-up action, if time buying is not the real intention of the government. We bet our bottom dollar that the government has resorted to dilatory tactics hoping that the next harvest will bring the prices down albeit temporarily.
What we are witnessing by way of soaring rice prices is a manifestation of commercial terrorism which has raised its ugly head due to the government`s impotence in dealing with traders. Prices usually rise in time of scarcity. But, rice is not in short supply. It is freely available at high prices. Therefore, the government`s effort to boost the supply with imported rice will not yield the intended results unless the imports reach the people direct at the prices recommended by the government. It was a mistake for the government, as President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself admitted in his budget speech last November, to give tax concessions to private traders. The benefits of tax waivers didn`t trickle down to the people. Likewise, there is a strong possibility of rice the government imports ending in private traders` stores to be sold at high prices.
It is being suggested in some quarters that the government raid the sprawling storage facilities of private traders where paddy is said to be hoarded. Such measures will be effective, as was said earlier, if there is a shortage of rice, which is not the problem at present. The high prices are due to collusion of rice mill owners and importers who ensure adequate supplies are available at exorbitant prices. Even if the country were to get a bumper harvest next time, the produce would be sucked in by these unscrupulous elements and released to the market in such a way that prices would still remain high. The government may be able to force open their stores and release more rice to the market but they will still be in a position to manipulate prices over the telephone as they are doing at present.
Such raids are a tall order for a government which lacks the courage to punish even its ministers who have brought it into disrepute through their violence. It cannot at least kick out a joker like Mervyn without any popular support?he polled only a little over 2,000 votes at the last General Election. The Rice Mafia has within its ranks siblings of powerful government politicians who are running with the people and hunting with their kith and kin who allegedly squander millions of rupees at casinos.
The use of paddy for manufacturing fodder is also said to have contributed to the steep rise in rice prices. One is reminded of Sugathapala de Silva`s famous book Ballo Bath Kathi (Dogs eat rice). The present situation where politicians are living in clover with animals eating rice meant for human consumption, while the people are suffering without rice may prompt someone to write a book titled Saththu bath kathi (Animals eat rice). It is imperative that the government ensure rice won`t be used to feed animals at the expense of humans.
If the stocks of imported rice are to take the desired effect on the market, the government will have to use its own distribution network to market them. The government is sanguine about doing that but obviously the co-operative network is not equal to the task, given their financial situation and inefficiency. The people cannot wait till the co-operatives are revived, however important that project may be in the long run. Now that the ruling party politicians are emulating their Opposition counterparts who are visiting polas (fairs) as a vote catching exercise, the government should give serious thought to making rice, preferably in packets carrying the State emblem, available at those places that cater to the middle and lower income groups. Assistance of local government bodies may be sought to open rice stalls in other marketplaces as well to sell rice at reasonable prices. Desperate remedies are called for! If such a project could be sustained for a week or so, the private traders will have to match the government prices or find their stocks going to waste. However, the heaviest resistance to such a move is likely to come not from outside but from within the government. After all, this is a country where politicians rise in defence of even drug barons in trouble.
The JVP has rightly pointed out that the rice to be imported by the government at this juncture will stand the Rice Mafia in good stead in that market saturation will bring down the price of paddy to be harvested shortly.
Rice is a wonder grain. Besides being the building block of this country`s civilisation, it has demonstrated its ability to either make or break governments. If the government fails to bring rice within the reach of the resentful public, it will be digging its political grave. When the wolf is at the door, patriotism usually flies out of the window. On the other hand, the people are aware that the high rice prices are not due to war but the sheer inefficiency of the government in handling the market.
The government has, through its failure to address the economic woes of the people, made a mockery of its very name, the United People`s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
Will it live up to its name?