Amidst the prevailing high prices of vegetables, the authorities are set to privatise the state-run economic centres throughout the country, prompting protests from farmers, traders and officials who warn that it will lead to chaos in the Markets if the new plans are implemented.
Market officials who wished to remain anonymous, revealed to the Sunday Times, that the takeover of the Centres by the Trade Ministry had been carried out even without Cabinet approval sending jitters among the traders, farmers, suppliers and support staff.
|High drama at Dambulla
Hundreds of protesters stormed the Economic Trade Centre at Dambulla on Tuesday soon after it was announced that the Market was to be privatized.
Farmer representatives argued with officials after their office inside the complex was handed over to private security personnel.
They said the Trade Ministry had hired some 20 executives as general managers, additional general managers and others at high salaries and other perks, along with some 70 private security personnel, and deployed them in all 12 Economic Centres now known as the Sathosa Economic Centre (Pvt) Ltd.
The officials alleged that the bulk of the new recruits were those close to the Ministry, such as pre-election ‘hurrah boys’ and liquor outlet dealers. “So much so, the manager appointed to one of the Centres is a former wine store clerk from the Kurunegala district,” they confided.
In addition, the private security guards include security forces deserters, underworld goons and others packing criminal records, they charged.
They alleged that the main aim of the Ministry, after the takeover, is to get at the estimated Rs 400 million in treasury bills and fixed deposits with the Centres’ Trust Fund that had been protected for more than 11 years.
This Fund was under a Trust headed earlier by an Additional Secretary from the Trade Ministry and included a wide-section of representatives and officials from farmers to the Central Bank and the Agriculture Department, they pointed out.
The Trade Ministry is talking about beautification of the Centres, and towards this end, is planning to dump huge sums of money for new constructions, vehicle parks, roads, etc, while failing to address the ever increasing price of vegetables, they further said.
“Here again, all these contracts for constructions, or what ever, will be given to select individuals as payback for their help during the elections. Instead, what the Ministry should be doing at the moment is to find ways of tackling the rising prices,” they said.
C.B. Herath of the Joint Farmers Organisation told the Sunday Times that their rights will be eroded with this so-called private company.
These centres were set up mainly to benefit the farmers and to protect their interests. But this will not be the case anymore. At the end of the day, the farmer is the backbone of the Centres, whatever anyone may have to say,” Herath said.
|Farmers and traders hold a protest meeting at the trade centre in Dambulla on Tuesday and (below) a clash between protestors and officials. Pix by Kanchana
|Police presence at the
centre on Tuesday
“We will not take this kind of arrogance from the Government lightly. There are 150 different groups that make up this Organisation and we will take our fight on to the streets,” he warned.
Dambulla Economic Centre Traders’ Association (DECTA) president U.R. Daya Nandasiri said they worked closely with the farmers by providing them with soft loans and encouraging them to plough even during lean times.
“One must be mindful that the traders and the farmers are the two main stakeholders of these Centres, and the others including politicians come later. By bringing in this new privatization, it will only go on to smother this bond, while hurting trade on one hand and produce on the other,” Mr. Nandasiri said.
He added that the Trade Ministry had given the wrong picture to the Government, in a bid to fulfil its own agenda.
“We would even suggest that the place be taken over by the Treasury, but not this by this private company,” he added. “Already, they are behaving like bulls in a china shop. For starters, they have taken over two office complexes belonging to the Farmers Association and the Agrarian Services Department, to make way for the private security personnel,” he added.
Trade Secretary Sunil. S. Sirisena said that the Centres Trust Committee was inadequate with little or zero knowledge on commercial operations, hence the takeover.
“Under the new administration, it is hoped that many irregularities that had been happening within the centres for over a decade, will be wiped out and some sort of relief afforded to the consumer.
He said that a Cabinet Paper towards this end is already in the pipeline and would be submitted for approval at the earliest.
The Chairman of the new company, Eraj Fernando said that the new changes were essential since the whole place had been politicised in the past.
He also dismissed allegations that the new administration would be politicized, adding that those making such allegations are blackmarketeers and racketeers with underworld links.“The place needed an overall change, and that is what is happening right now. Street protests and related agitation campaigns do not bother us,” he further said.
He also conceded that most of the new hands were recruited from Kurunegala, since they possessed a higher degree of education and therefore, would be more efficient.