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12th July 1998

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After thoughtHow do Sri Lankans eat?

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

They will suffer in silence and accept the burdens with stoic resignation. But as the saying goes even the worm turns sometimes.

How do people in Sri Lanka live? This has been a question on my mind from the time our family returned for good to the country, after nearly three years in Bombay, India.

I am not talking about the rise of the goondas, the spectre of whom we thought had been laid to rest forever, after the People's Alliance government came into power. What I am talking about is the cost of living, which has not only gone through the roof, but also through the sky.

How do the common man, woman and child live? I presume about five per cent of the population lives a high life - wining and dining in the best restaurants; travelling in luxury cars or Pajeros, going abroad at the drop of a hat and most probably feeding their pet dogs better food than what the ordinary man sees in a lifetime.

I am talking of a middle class family like mine - working in the private or public sector, dependent on a monthly wage, without any other extra income, no inherited property.

I am not referring to the "allas karayas", certain groups in the public sector who accept bribes as a practice. Only about the honest, hardworking men and women who do not have petrol allowances, entertainment allowances or medical cover.

The only thing they do have, if in the public sector is a paltry pension and in the private sector the monies collected in the Employees' Trust and Provident Funds.

How do we survive? Has anyone in the government or bureaucracy ever given a thought to the likes of us? How do we live from month to month, nay from day to day, or from meal to meal?

All the arguments in the world about World Bank or International Monetary Fund conditions and macro-economics don't help the likes of me to buy my 20-month-old son his milk powder or my five-year-old daughter the nutrition she needs in the form of a little meat, fish or egg.

Do the policy-makers, seated in their air-conditioned offices, know how much vegetables cost these days? I know the prices, because I go looking for bargains. The other day, a rainy day, I was getting back home in a trishaw (a rare luxury for the likes of me) from Nugegoda to Kirilapone, when I saw a long queue snaking along the pavement near the Kirilapone market. Old men with umbrellas, young women carrying infants, old women attempting to cover their heads, against the drizzle, with torn sarees_all standing patiently in a queue.

Memories of the seventies and how my father and brothers stood in queues for rice, bread flashed across my mind. Had we gone back to that era?

I stopped the trishaw and asked a woman what was happening. She said that vegetables were quite "cheap" in that tiny little boutique. I looked at the vegetables which were on display - forlorn carrots, crushed leeks, smashed tomatoes, withered kankun and rotten onions. People were patiently awaiting their turn to buy just that. And some politicians have the gumption to say that Sri Lankans eat too much.

The vegetables, fish and other stuff at the sprawling Kirilapone supermarket is beyond the ordinary man, woman and child.The few times that I have gone to the fish stalls there, I have seen and heard men and women asking for just 100 grams of salayo, sometimes quite rotten. How many people can eat 100 grams? How many mouthfuls will 100 grams make? Of course, politicians in their mansions, tucking into prawn, seer and lobster will ask: Why don't they eat "karola"?

Do they know that dried fish is also very, very expensive. Nothing can be bought for less than Rs. 15 per 100 grams.

Most ordinary people trudge through the mud and filth of the "old" market to pick up bargains from a ramshackle little vegetable stall there. I have also seen women picking up cabbage leaves from among the rotting vegetable dump just outside this stall.

Next to this, is a shop which sells eggs and oil - eggs are comparatively cheap here. Even then you have to pay more than Rs. 2.75 for an egg. During the festive seasons, with all our bogus values coming out, one egg costs more than Rs. 5.50. Just the other day, I heard a decently dressed man who looked like an office worker, asking for just one egg - must have been for a sick child.

For those who do not know the price of vegetables, especially our politicians and bureaucrats, here's something to think about. Last week a kilo of carrot cost Rs. 68, potato Rs. 72, beetroot Rs. 70, radish Rs. 33, cucumber Rs. 30, tomato Rs. 90, leeks Rs. 55 and onions Rs 40.

For argument's sake we'll say these are the "rich" vegetables. What about the normal "gamey" fare: pathola was Rs. 30 a kilo, wetakolu Rs. 40, ash plantains Rs. 50, the humble kohila ala Rs. 45 and nelum dandu Rs. 45. A tiny bunch of karapincha Rs. 7. What about lime? Don't even ask? Lime is Rs. 18 for 100 grams. And how many limes do you get for 100 grams - about three. So ONE lime is Rs. 6. An average-size coconut is about Rs. 9.

Are we talking of luxuries? Ham, bacon, sausages, not even meat. No, just the basic necessities. But even that is beyond the reach of the majority of men, women and children in this country. I still puzzle over the question: How do Sri Lankans eat?

My plea to those in power is do something now, before it is too late. Do something right now, otherwise life may take a turn, which most of us may not like. How much deprivation can we expect people to undergo. They will suffer in silence and accept the burdens with stoic resignation. But as the saying goes even the worm turns sometimes.

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