COL: Price on the consumer’s head
By Nalaka Nonis
More than three months have passed since the UPFA government came into office promising a reduction in the cost of living as one of their main election pledges, but instead of the much-bragged-about relief, the consumer has been further hit by skyrocketing prices.

Prices of a number of items such as rice, sugar, dhal, coconut and petrol have gone up drastically after the UPFA came to office Prices of rice have gone up by as much as Rs. 11. Samba which was sold at Rs. 30 a kilo before the April 2 general elections, has now gone upto Rs. 37; the price of a kilo of Nadu has gone up from Rs. 28 to 32; white raw rice from Rs. 26 to 37 and red raw kekulu from Rs. 28 to 37.

The price of a kilo of Sugar has gone up from Rs. 29 to 34, dhal from Rs. 47 to 64 and coconut from Rs. 11 to 13-14. With moves to import rice being opposed by the UPFA's main alliance partner, the JVP, traders speculate further rise in prices. The traders said the present hike in rice prices was largely due to an artificial demand created by rice millers, who were deliberately holding back the supply of rice to the market.

One trader from the Pettah market told The Sunday Times that around 600 tons of rice came to the Pettah market a few months ago, but now the quantity had come down to around 300 tons. Though the price hike in petrol from Rs. 57 to 65 is mainly affecting the upper and middle class, it has also hit those who hire three-wheelers.

Many three-wheeler drivers have seized the opportunity to increase their charges unfairly. Some who charged Rs. 100 a journey are now charging Rs. 120 to 130 even though the added actual cost they have to bear as a result of the increase is about 40 cents a kilometre.

All Island Three-wheel Drivers Welfare Association President Lalith Dharmasena urged three-wheel drivers to charge fairly from the passengers according to the percentage increased. He said it is in the best interest of the passenger to agree upon a charge before making a journey.

Another burden is on the cards for consumers, as Shell Gas threatens to increase the price of a gas cylinder by Rs. 70 making it Rs. 690, if the Government discontinues the subsidy given to the company. Shell has already increased the price of auto gas, citing price increases in the world market.

By law, permission is required from the Consumer Affairs Authority, which comes under the wing of the Trade, Commerce and Consumer Affairs Ministry, to increase the prices of essential goods. However these 'essential' items, which have been gazetted by the Ministry only include milk powder, LP Gas, mosquito coils, boxes of matches and wheat flour.

Consumers were spared another rude shock when a request by the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) for a 20 percent tariff increase was shot down by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. However, reports said a five percent rise is on the cards.

Meanwhile, The Private Bus Owners Association President Gemunu Wijeratne said they were entitled to go for another hike according to the agreement they had reached with the Government. He said though they were holding back at the moment, if the situation warranted a hike, they would be compelled to do so.

To ease the burden of the spiralling cost of living, a ministerial committee has recommended the withdrawal of tariff on wheat flour imports and encouraged milk food imports from India and sugar from Brazil, said Consumer Affairs Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who, along with with ministers Sarath Amunugama, Susil Premajayanth, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Lalkantha Perera, comprised the committee.

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