ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 20, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 47
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Back to the 70s

Slowly, but surely, the Government has thrown the people of this country into a time machine of sorts, propelling them back to the food shortages and controls of the 1970s - which a generation of people would not know about, and others have all but forgotten.

That was a time when the left-of-centre State controlled the commanding heights of the economy, and one had to stand in endless queues to collect rationed rice, sugar, bread, textiles, and on two days of the week -- Tuesdays and Fridays -- public eating houses were banned from serving rice; people were asked to grow - and eat manioc, and what was known as the haal-polla (the rice barrier) prevented the transport of rice without a permit.

Those were hard times. The father was in one queue for bread, the mother in another for textiles, and a child in yet another for sugar. Economic stagnation was the order of the day, and gazettes announcing new price increases, the order of the night. Needless to say, the Government in office paid the ultimate price for its inept handling of the situation with a crushing defeat at the next hustings.

This week's extreme decision to impose price-control on the sale of rice brought back terrible memories of those nightmarish years.

Traders have closed their wholesale and retail outlets complaining that it is unfair to ask them to sell rice at a lower price than the purchase price - and blame millers as the ones making money in escalating prices. But it is the Government that must take the entire blame for the imbroglio. Bad planning and lack of foresight have led to the situation that has now developed into a real crisis.

As our Political Editor says, in the past, when such situations arose, you would find the Government appointing a high-level Cabinet sub-committee to look into the matter and at least show the public that something was being done to alleviate the problem. He also asks, what happened to the buffer-stocks all governments are meant to maintain.

The problem has been compounded by the fact that all rice-producing, and exporting countries are also having problems, mainly a result of unseasonal weather, something that hit Sri Lanka's rice growers this time, and something all governments will have to be watchful of given the climate change factors.

From India and Bangladesh to China and Vietnam, shortages have resulted in a chain reaction to the supply and distribution of rice throughout Asia. In the Philippines, the situation is so grave that rice-hoarding has been made a 'criminal offence', and the President of that country had to personally negotiate the import of rice from Vietnam.

Elsewhere, the diversion of vast tracts of America's corn crop to the alternate fuel -- ethanol - is causing a further pull for the demand for rice, already in short supply in the world market.
These desperate situations in Asia are having ripple effects throughout the world. Africa, already hungry, is going to be further hit by the shortage of rice in Asia. The United Nations has predicted a hungrier world in the coming months, not only because of the shortage of rice, the staple food of Asia's teeming millions, but a general shortage of other food items as well.

The demand for rice comes against the backdrop of an otherwise decline in the average per capita consumption of rice compared to wheat in all rice eating countries, attributed to greater urbanisation, the non-availability of time for cooking and the practical convenience of wheat flour items -- cakes, pastries etc.

Because of this trend, the Government exhorted the people to eat more rice. This was aimed at cutting foreign exchange spending for the import of wheat flour. But now we are spending for the import of wheat flour -- and rice.

Many Asian Governments are being blamed for not taking a long-term view of self-sufficiency in food. With greater urbanisation, and fertile fields being turned into housing for burgeoning populations, world food agencies have warned that if one more rice-producing country -- say, Vietnam fails -- there is going to be a major catastrophe, even a famine in this part of the world.

Basically, there is just not enough food going around; food supplies are not keeping pace with rising populations; even the UN World Food Programme is asking for more funds for food aid.

The Government should have learnt a bitter lesson by now. Last week, our Political Editor referred to how a senior Government official told an Asian diplomat who had turned down a request from Sri Lanka for rice supplies that it was 'ok' if they could not give the rice, as long as they say they would be giving the rice in a media statement.

How much of this hoodwinking can be sustained, and for how long? Sri Lanka will have to do some serious planning in a world running out of food.

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