These days, a customer inquiring about the price of an essential item at a grocery is apt to be given the answer, “Today the price is …”, reflecting the daily fluctuations in prices of goods. Most retailers have stopped issuing receipts to customers, fearing the consequences if the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) sees the prices; [...]


‘Today the price is …’ – customers shocked by new reality at the till


These days, a customer inquiring about the price of an essential item at a grocery is apt to be given the answer, “Today the price is …”, reflecting the daily fluctuations in prices of goods.

Most retailers have stopped issuing receipts to customers, fearing the consequences if the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) sees the prices; alternatively, priceless receipts are issued.

Rice in short supply at a Sathosa outlet. Pic by Rekha Tharangani

“Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prices of essential items such as dhal and rice have shot up across the country,” Ranjith Vithanage, Chairman of the National Movement for Consumer Rights Protection, said. “The price of electric items also has skyrocketed in recent weeks.”

Since the ban on the import of potatoes and onions came into effect, the government has not taken steps to ensure there are sufficient quantities of these vegetables available to consumers since both those crops are currently off-season.

While the rupee’s depreciation and insufficient buffer stocks are held by the government to be key reasons for the price hikes, consumers believe retail traders are selling some of these vegetables for 10 times more than what is quoted in the markets.

Although the government has given assurances that there would be adequate supplies of essential food items at stable prices, right now there are shortages and rising prices, the Managing Director Sampath Super Traders, Dinusha Sampath Liyanage, said.

Supermarkets might have reopened but some essential commodities such as milk powder and rice are still in short supply.

Shortages and escalating prices have become the order of the day. Pic by Eshan Fernando

“The government’s mismanagement is a reason for this crisis. There should be proper methodology to link the farmer and supply network. That will reduce the number of intermediaries and make sure the farmers receive a larger share of the profit while simultaneously making it more convenient for customers to purchase high-quality, low-priced fresh fruit,” Mr. Liyanage said.

The enforcement of the price control mechanism was ineffective. “How can we sell dhal for Rs. 125 when it was bought for Rs. 200? This is why the shortage arises – when controlled pricing is not practical,” Mr. Liyanage stressed.

A retail trader from Matugama in Kalutara, Anura Gamage, said wholesalers had piled additional costs onto the goods he bought from them. “As a result, we can’t sell these items according to the controlled prices set by authorities,” he said.

Currently, there is an acute shortage of wheat flour, keeri samba and sugar across the country and, despite the government’s repeated claims of intervention to bring down the prices, prices of nearly all essential items rose by at least Rs 10 in recent weeks.

Due to loss of income from continuous lockdowns, daily wage workers are forced to take up more than one job in order to support their families.

M. Nithiyananathan, tea stall owner in Jaffna town

Addarage Karunawathi, 48, a mother of three from Baduraliya, used to sell vegetables and fruit in the market. When travel restrictions were imposed she started to work at land-clearing and other jobs to earn a living.

She said the rise in the price of rice made it difficult for her to put food on the table and the family was having to limit consumption. “Unlike during the last lockdown period, no jackfruit is available and so we are reliant on rice these days,” Ms. Karunawathi said.

Although the CAA seized illegal rice stockpiles across the country in recent weeks for distribution through the Sathosa chain, some rice varieties are being sold at prices significantly higher than the Maximum Retail Prices (MRP) introduced by the government.

Paramanathan Niroshan, a retail grocery shop owner from Thirunelvely, Jaffna. Pix by N.Lhathayalan

All-Island Govi Jana [Farmers] Federation National organiser Namal Karunaratne said the impact of the fertiliser ban could be seen in the drop in rice production in the last season when farmers struggled to obtain fertiliser.

“The entire country is facing supply chain disruptions due to the COVID situation. The usual rice production and supply process is not happening as smoothly as we expect,” Mr. Karunaratne said.

Large-scale traders are using this economic situation to their advantage and making big profits, Mr. Karunaratne said.

He believes the government’s move to introduce a controlled price for rice was impractical. “Without adequate production, how can we expect a good paddy harvest in this situation?” he asked.

“When lockdown restrictions are lifted, I fear this crisis will become worse. With the reopening of restaurants, demand will increase rapidly. Before that happens, the government must urgently address the supply shortage,” Mr. Karunaratne said.

In the north, long queues in front of grocery stores, particularly in rural areas, has become a daily sight, with people struggling to buy essential items in short supply due to disruption of the distribution network in remote areas.

Paramanathan Niroshan, who runs Sivan Stores in Thirunelvely, Jaffna, said the daily fluctuating prices of items reduced people’s purchasing power significantly.

“People think twice before buying things these days. As traders, we are also in a difficult position because it is not we who decide the prices of essential items but the supplying agents who fixed them, citing the depreciation of the rupee,” Mr Niroshan said.

For example, even though the MRP for white sugar is fixed at Rs. 120, it is being sold for Rs. 140-150 as fixed by distribution agents. Owners of small shops say they are forced to sell at the price fixed by agents in order to continue business.

The impact of the increased cost of living is evident in restaurants and tea stalls where the price of milk tea has increased from Rs. 40 to Rs. 50, and short eats prices have gone up an average of Rs. 10.

M. Nithiyananathan, a tea stall owner in Jaffna town, said he had lost customers due to lockdowns and price rises and it was becoming increasingly difficult to run a business.

“Those who come to our restaurant pay the same amount to purchase very little compared to the past, and they are very conscious about their spending,” Mr Nithiyananthan said.

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