The Sunday Times Editorial

15th September 1996

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Deliver the goods

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is reported to be furious over the failure to control the cost of living which is skyrocketing to unbearable heights and contributing most to the miseries of the common man.

An angry President told the Cabinet last Wednesday she felt Cabinet committees appointed to study and tackle the cost of living crisis had produced little or nothing in terms of results. Ironically perhaps the main committee is headed by her mother and Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

While world prices of essential commodities like rice are coming down, Sri Lankans are being forced to pay the highest ever prices for rice. Last year the best variety of rice was less than Rs. 25. Today the cheapest variety costs more than Rs. 25. Is someone trying to make millions of rupees on rice imports while poor people now are finding it difficult to get even manioc for a meal?

While millions of low and middle income group people are scraping the barrel if not the dustbin, we see the vulgar extravagance of pot-bellied politicians still wallowing in five-star luxury.

Two weeks ago, senior Minister Richard Pathirana slammed Trade Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne, accusing him of bungling the cost of living issue and failing to protect the poor people who had elected the PA to office. Supported by outspoken backbenchers, Mr. Pathirana said MPs were unable to go back to their electorates and face the people who were being punched so badly in their stomachs. Mr. Pathirana warned he would resign his portfolio if the COL crisis was not settled, but there is much scepticism as to whether politicians of today's breed could rise to such high stature.

If Cabinet committees have failed, it may be because those on such committees have never experienced the pangs of hunger and cannot identify with a family that hits the mat without a night meal and with prospects for the morning still bleaker. Throwing some crumbs to the poor people according to the trickle-down theories of the World Bank have only aggravated poverty and widened the gap between the rich and the poor.

We suggest that the battle against the rising COL be put on an emergency footing. This could include the appointment of a committee comprising people with practical experience and a vision of a just order in society. Such a committee could study various dimensions of the crisis and report back to the President within two weeks, recommending urgent and effective measures to ease the burdens on the people.

The private traders main motive is profit, not public service. So if they are given the freedom of the wild trader, they will plunder as much as possible from the consumer. To prevent this the state must act as a buffer by competing effectively with the private trader especially in essential commodities. This has seldom happened during the past two years, perhaps mainly because the big state trading organisation the CWE has shown little of the dynamism that was seen initially or even later during the Athulathmudali era. A committee of MPs recently pointed out a multitude of malpractices and mismanagement in the CWE, but lots of it appears to have been only swept under the carpet.

There is also an urgent need for effective consumer resistance movements all over the country. Wide public participation could be mobilised if the government is seen to be sincere and persistent in its efforts to deliver the goods to the people. If the government does not do this it does not deserve to be there.

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