A coterie of mill owners create it
Will stock 300,000 tonnes of paddy this time
Provincial Council system is absolutely needed
Shasheendra Rajapaksa, the State Minister of Paddy and Grains, Organic Food, Vegetables, Fruits, Chillies, Onion and Potato Cultivation Promotion, Seed Production and Advanced Technology Agriculture, shares his views with Daily Mirror on the crisis involved in the rice market. He also responds to queries about the political situation and allegations against the government. Mr. Rajapaksa is the son of Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa : Excerpts.
In this country, there are more than 480 small mill owners. They are in a dire predicament because of leading mill owners numbering four or five. We enter into arrangement with them
Our research institutes have discovered ways and means of doubling the harvest from the existing lands through the use of technology. If we keep importing, it will affect our farmers. Our cost of production is higher, though
We have only 16,615 farmers who cultivate more than two hectares. We don’t purchase from them. For others, we provide fertilizer, water and technology. We have 22 million people. And, one million of them are involved in cultivation of rice to feed the entire population
Q What is your assessment of the current political situation?
We, the government, have started our journey with a development drive. We started from where it remained stalled in the past. Despite baseless allegations, we have ventured into action for the realization of promises made in the president’s manifesto. All the government institutions are in full gear in working for the people. You cannot see the results of what you do today immediately. But, it will take at least a year for you to see the results of your present actions. Only six months have lapsed after the parliamentary elections. Road development is taking place in an unprecedented manner. At village level, roads are carpeted with asphalt. We have earmarked 5000 irrigation tanks to be developed. The president has set targets to be achieved in the agriculture sector. We have mapped out a three-year plan for the implementation of it. The production of local seed requirement is the biggest challenge we have in realizing self-sufficiency in food crops such as chilli, onions and potatoes. Seed production is now in progress. Within three years, we will produce seeds required for self-sufficiency in selected food crops. As far as potatoes are concerned, we can produce 60 percent of the local requirement.
Q You hold ministerial responsibilities which are directly relevant to addressing the cost of living. Today, we see a shortage of rice in the market. Rice is in short supply even at super markets. What went wrong despite you talking about self-sufficiency?
It is true. There is no option for the government other than to declare a controlled price or regulate prices. In the absence of a mechanism to control prices through market intervention, we, the government, try to take action against errant trading practices. We raid places where rice is sold in excess of the controlled price. It is practically difficult to do it all the time. As a result, the government decided to compete with the private sector in purchasing paddy and selling rice. Actually, the Paddy Marketing Board is there for the purpose. It has not functioned to its total capacity, though. Now, there is a rice shortage. But, the government does not have stocks to be released to the market so that the prices can be brought down . If we have stocks, we can mill them and release rice to the market.
We have 10, 41,923 farmers, according to statistics of the Department of Agrarian Services. Of them, only 266291 farmers cultivate one to two hectares of land each. It means only less than 27 percent of the rice farming community cultivate more than one hectare but less than two each. We purchase paddy only from them. From them too, we purchase only ten percent of their harvests each. There is nothing to panic about it. In fact, we don’t give fertilizer subsidy for those with more than two hectares of paddy land each. We have only 16,615 farmers who cultivate more than two hectares. We don’t purchase from them. For others, we provide fertilizer, water and technology. We have 22 million people. And, one million of them are involved in cultivation of rice to feed the entire population.
The leading mill owners purchase only 30 percent of the total harvest of the country.
Q The government purchases paddy at Rs.50 a kilo, but the private sector does it at Rs.58-60. Then, it will be difficult to issue rice at a price rate for the benefit of customers. Won’t it upset retail trading in an open, market system?
If we had done away with a support price for farmers, what would have happened? Then, these private rice millers would not have quoted such a high price for paddy. We have announced a controlled price of Rs.97 for rice a kilo. If private traders sell it at Rs.110 a kilo, we can do nothing. There is no use of fining only retail traders. There is a mafia involving a few. What we should do is to compete with mill owners by purchasing a share of the total harvest and milling it. We can sell rice at Rs. 97 a kilo with the total production cost involved. By purchasing paddy at Rs.50 a kilo, we can release rice at a wholesale price of Rs.93 a kilo. If we purchase paddy at Rs.55 a kilo, the cost will shoot up to Rs.111 a kilo.
We will store 300,000 tonnes this time. We have warehouses for it. We will release the stock to the market to be sold at the controlled price.
Q But, the government does not have rice mills. How can you compete with private mill owners?
We don’t have. In this country, there are more than 480 small mill owners. They are in a dire predicament because of leading mill owners numbering four or five. We enter into arrangement with them. We supply them with paddy in quantities. They have to mill them and provide rice to Sathosa retail outlets.
All these five big mill owners have only 30 percent of the market share.
Q When there are two price rates in the market for the same product, it is bound to create ripples within the market system. Is it alright in terms of economics then?
If anyone has more money, he is free to purchase rice at a higher rate from anywhere. But, rice will be available at Sathosa and Cooperative shops at lower prices.
Q Will the government’s share be sufficient to meet the entire market demand?
We can cater to 60 percent of the population. Sathosa outlets are everywhere.
Q With the government’s ban on turmeric imports, a shortage was created. Afterwards, local cultivation started. There is some supply at the moment. But, the price is very high. It affects the cost of living. How are you going to address this concern?
In the overall context, we need to increase production. In Ampara for example, turmeric has been cultivated more than enough. If the crop is harvested in March, prices may come down.
Q You talk about self-sufficient in crops such as kurakkan (finger millet), black gram and all. Ours is a country with a dense population. Do we have enough land for cultivation of all?
Our research institutes have discovered ways and means of doubling the harvest from the existing lands through the use of technology. If we keep importing, it will affect our farmers. Our cost of production is higher, though. The president has listed 16 food crops to be cultivated locally. The fulfilment of seed requirement is the problem here. If we address this problem, we will achieve the target.
Q You joined politics as the chief minister. Now you are an MP. How do you find the difference?
There is nothing wrong with parliamentary politics. I remain engaged in national politics.
Q There is a huge allegation about damage being done to the forest cover. Who is responsible for this?
There may be concerns whether deforestation is done with the connivance of the government or not. But, there is no involvement of us to clear lands for private use by any individual. The president has made his position clear. However, large swathes of land used by people for Chena cultivation (slash and burn) for a prolonged period has been brought under the purview of the Forest Conservation Department. Our farmers continue to cultivate such lands. These are mostly shrub lands. The government made it clear that farmers should be given right to cultivate such lands. It is not that they will individually own these lands. We will implement the law properly.
Q Why is the government unable to trace those responsible for denuding our forest cover?
Fraudulent elements are always there. They operate under every government. They find one reason or another to do such activities.
Q Today, we have a president who represents the non-traditional political stream and a prime minister from the traditional stream. On the other hand, they are brothers. You are also a member of the same family. How do you see it?
This is a perfect blend of politicians. The president has executive powers to implement the policies. He does not do politics. He does not even attend private weddings. The president supervises our ministerial work. We have to brief him every two months about what we did and intend to do in the future. The prime minister carries out political work of the government.
Q What do you think of the president’s approach?
It is extremely good. I have been given the most difficult job- to achieve self-sufficiency in food crops. I am under stress to do it. The president wants us to achieve results on the ground. Some of those who are unable to perform are critical of the president’s approach. I am always in favour of results-oriented approaches. At least, there will be appraisal of our work at the end. There are both doers and idlers. Those who work should be recognized. There has to be a platform for us to air our views in this regard. Then, people will decide whom should be voted in next time. Some appear before media and talk about certain topics. But, you better examine whether they have performed in their ministries or not. There are ministers who perform well. But, there is scant media publicity for them.
Q However, the government came under criticism by the forces that supported it at the elections. Specially, some Buddhist monks who were ardent supporters of this government are criticizing it. What do you make of this anti-government trend?
When the government is not on track, those who supported it have legitimate right to criticize it. The agreement to lease out the East Container Terminal of Colombo Port had been signed by the Ranil Wickremesinghe government. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa was a Cabinet Minister of the same government. It is difficult for any government to renege from a bilateral agreement signed with another country previously. There will be repercussions otherwise. We proceeded with it accordingly. But, the forces that backed this government were opposed to it. The president listened to it and scrapped the plan. There was a bigger protest over the lease out of the Hambantota Port. But, the then government disregarded such protest.
Q What is your view on the provincial council system as the former chief minister who ruled the Uva provincial council?
It is absolutely essential to have it. It should be in the main constitution. When you identify it with the 13th Amendment, you get the feeling that it is something imposed from elsewhere. The provincial councils should not be construed as a stepping stone for politicians to enter Parliament. Now for example,. A solution to the education sector problem in a rural corner of Sri Lanka cannot be worked from Isurupaya. The provincial council is the best place to find these solutions.