Govt. slashes price of imported rice

But vegetable prices soar while traders sell rotten potatoes and big onions
By Leon Berenger

The Government announced yesterday it would provide imported rice at duty-free prices to consumers but prices of vegetables and essential food items continued to skyrocket. A Finance Ministry announcement said steps had been taken to encourage the importers to utilize this duty-free facility.

The fixed retail price for a kilogram of Basmathi rice will be Rs. 75 and Ponni samba Rs. 70. The Finance Ministry statement said that in view of the forthcoming festive season, the government decided to import 25,000 Mts of Basmathi and Ponni samba rice duty-free for the use of the consumers.

Picking the good onions from among the rotten ones

But, three weeks after the government claimed that food prices were dropping, the prices of vegetables and other essential food items continued to skyrocket as the festive season began. Government leaders say there is little they could do to ease the difficult situation faced by consumers.

Consumer Affairs Minister Bandula Gunawardene said yesterday the rising prices were due to a variety of reasons and the authorities were hard pressed to provide immediate relief.

He said the heavy rains in most parts of the agriculture zones had prevented farmers from harvesting their crops. In addition more farmers had opted out of their traditional farming role and instead taken up other jobs.

In state outlets yesterday, potatoes were being sold at Rs. 160 a kilo, big onions Rs. 180, red onions, Rs. 178, ginger Rs 272, garlic Rs. 270, brinjals Rs. 130, cabbage Rs. 100, beetroot Rs. 156, tomatoes Rs. 125, pumpkin Rs. 63, bitter gourd Rs. 135, masoor dhal Rs. 178, sugar Rs. 87, and lime at Rs. 400.
But prices of these same items in other retail outlets were 50 percent or even more, The Sunday Times found out.

The cheapest vegetable selling for Rs. 63 a kilo was pumpkin while the most expensive item were green chillies priced at Rs. 490 a kilo. Prices of items such as potatoes are as much as Rs. 100 a kilo in the wholesale market in Pettah while the retail price is around Rs. 120 despite the Government announcing a maximum wholesale price of Rs. 65 a kilo three weeks ago. Imported dried chillies are priced at Rs. 188 a kilo though the government-announced maximum wholesale price is Rs. 95 a kilo.
Christy Perera, manager of the Dambulla Economic Trade Centre, which handles some 80 percent of the vegetable distribution to the entire country, said supplies to the market had slumped by nearly 50 percent and as a result the prices of even the cheapest item had reached high levels.

Adding to the crisis were the tons of imported big onions and potatoes that had to be thrown away as they were rotten on arrival at the Dambulla Trade Centre, he said. The stocks that had come from India and Pakistan were not fit for consumption.

Meanwhile traders in the city and elsewhere have hired drug addicts and others to dry and clean these rotten items with the aim of putting them into the market to be sold to unsuspecting people. Such cleaning-up operations of the rotten items were seen at Pettah and in certain instances just metres away from the over flowing public latrines.

Gamini Handunhetti, Secretary of the Traders Association at the Manning Market in Pettah, said that although there was an increase in the demand for vegetables and other items, the stocks arriving into the market were inadequate.

He said prices had shot up during the past two months and were expected to remain high into the New Year. He also said the recent stocks of imported potatoes and big onions were of low quality and in certain cases unfit for consumption. He admitted that certain traders who had bought large stocks of these items were forced to clean them up and re-sell them in the market to avoid big losses.

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