- Millers, traders should respect price guidelines
- Millers try to underperform each other in purchasing paddy
- Production increase is the best solution
Leading mill-owner cum State Minister of Mahaweli Zones, Canals, and Settlement Infrastructure Development Siripala Gamlath, in an interview with Dailymirror, responds to questions about the present rice shortage and plans for the development of agriculture in the future. The Polonnaruwa District MP from the ruling party is one of the leading rice millers in the country.
Q: What is your assessment of the government’s performance?
We have done a lot. But, we have had to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic since we took over the government.
National security remained a key issue at that time. No one had the confidence to do anything because of it. We lost revenue sources because of the serial bombings on April 21, 2019.
The situation took a turn for the worse with the eruption of the pandemic. The President is keen to develop Sri Lanka as an agro-economy. Despite price hikes, the government imposed import restrictions on food crops that are otherwise cultivable in Sri Lanka. It has ensured fresh incomes for local cultivators.
Q: Is it practical for a relatively land-scarce country like Sri Lanka to be self-sufficient in a large basket of food crops – green gram, black gram, cowpea etc?
I believe available lands are more than enough. Yet, we don’t use advanced and scientific methods for cultivation. Our average crop yield is much less than the potential.
Q: You are a leading rice mill owner. What is your view on rice farming in this regard?
Our average yield per hectare can be increased in the Mahaweli areas. We need to introduce high-yield varieties. Scientific agriculture is not popular among farmers. They still stick to traditional methods of cultivation, but scientific research work is carried out elsewhere. Research work should be carried out with farmers. It should be aimed at the reduction of production cost and improvement of yield.
Q: Even today, farmers face a severe problem in marketing their harvests. Until recent times, a stable price remained a problem. You, as a rice miller, buy one-third of the harvest in the Mahaweli areas. How can the marketing issue be addressed in such an eventuality?
If there is any harvest in excess of the amount required for human consumption, it can be sold off for manufacturing animal feed. Animal feed is very expensive. So, there is a solution in the event of increased harvests in the future.
Whenever there is a shortage, the prices increase. Though we say we are self-sufficient, supply and demand do not match each other.
Q: What is the reason for the drop in rice supply this time?
Monsoons sometimes fail.
Rains were delayed this time. We got rain for the Maha season only in January this time instead of October, November or December of the previous year. Actually, we took a risk this time by releasing water from the Mahaweli reservoirs for cultivation. Luckily, it rained heavily between December 15, 2020, and the end of January, this year.
All the irrigation tanks are now brimming with water. Therefore, cultivation in the upcoming Yala season is well secured.
Q: Now, there is a huge issue in the rice market. The prices have gone through the roof. You are also one of the leading millers in the country. Why is this problem?
Traders and millers should follow the stable price guidelines.
Today, paddy is purchased from farmers competitively by traders. Then, they have increased prices for farmers. It leads to a hike in rice prices for consumers. The government does not want this competition. I also want to avoid such a foray into paddy purchases. It is the responsibility of all to adhere to the market regulations. One or two individuals cannot contain the situation. The present market situation has been triggered by those acting without responsibility. Any businessman has a responsibility to act with.
Q: You referred to the responsibility of businessmen. What do you actually mean?
Businessmen should not unfairly pursue their profit. For example, they try to outperform each other by quoting higher rates for paddy purchases from farmers - each trying to acquire the largest stock for profitability. Simultaneously, they increase rice prices for consumers. That is the reason for rice not being available at the regulated price rates. Paddy price is high this time for farmers because of this tussle among millers.
Q: There was talk about a move to import rice to control prices. What is your view?
It will be a drain on foreign exchange. Our target is to develop local agriculture. We want to make our country self-sufficient. There is no use of heavy investment if we import rice.
Q: What are the plans for the development of the Mahaweli scheme in the next stage?
We have trained and empowered farmers to increase yields from their lands. It is a priority area for us. We want to increase the capacity of each irrigation tank, reservoir and anicuts. We look for a way to increase the storage of rainwater received during monsoons for cultivation during dry months. We plan for the cultivation for three seasons a year- two rice crops and another additional food crop in between. During the two months between Yala and Maha seasons, we can cultivate food crops such as green gram. It is an additional source of income for farmers. Also, it improves the arability of lands. That can be done during August and September.
Q: There is a strain on Mahaweli lands due to increased activities by people such as livestock rearing. The demand for cultivable land is also on the rise. How do you deal with this problem?
With the latest attachment of importance for agriculture, people have resorted to agriculture activities more and more. There is a growing demand for the cultivation of maize, turmeric, green gram and black gram, for example. We are introducing new cultivation methods for better yields from limited land resources. In Israel, we find such advanced agricultural practices. We need to pay more attention to drip irrigation and polytunnel cultivation. We don’t convert forestlands into croplands otherwise. Besides, we have a lot of forested Mahaweli lands meant for cultivation. We will use them in keeping with environmental guidelines. We intend to cultivate rubber and mangoes in such lands. Then, it will serve both environmental and economic purposes.
Q: In your view, how challenging is it for you to revive the economy affected by the pandemic?
We have restricted imports such as vehicles to save foreign exchange. We need to proceed with such restrictions until the situation becomes normal.
Q: As a politician and a mill-owner, what do you propose to bring down the cost of living?
That is why the President has proposed to increase production as much as possible. We have to do it in one or two seasons. Once production is sufficient, we can control the prices.
If we increase rice production in excess of the demand, the prices will drop for consumers automatically. Today, there is a high demand for paddy but is short in supply.
Q: As far as the rice market is concerned, there is the public perception that middlemen pocket a lot of money leaving both cultivators and consumers in the lurch. What is your view?
All these problems are due to a mismatch between demand and supply. When there is perennial supply, middlemen lose their role. If we have enough and more paddy cultivated in the country, rice prices will naturally drop. It means there is a mismatch. It all depends on the truants of nature. When there is a bounty of rain, the rice growth will increase bringing relief to farmers and consumers. There was a shortfall of rain at the flowering stage of rice cultivated during the Maha season. It resulted in a lot of empty grains. That is another reason for a drop in the harvest this time.
Q: How big is the impact?
I think it accounts for a 20 per cent drop in the harvest. Monsoons got active a little later. Then, lack of rain or water at the flowering stage of rice was leading to empty grains.