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13th September 1998

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After thoughtThis rotting free market

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Last week we were in Dambulla, not only famous for its rock temples, but also as a major farming town.

The harvest of the yala season which has just ended was being gathered in most fields, while others were being ploughed for the next. Some of the cultivators get water from the Kandalama tank, others wait for the rains.

Wherever you look in the town you see shops with sacks and sacks of vegetables. Onions, pathola (snake gourd), wetakolu (bottle gourd), bandakka (ladies' fingers), maa (string beans), brinjal, cucumber, pumpkins, kekiri, the much-cherished "malu-miris (capsicum) and lime. Heaps of "komadu" (water melon) were everywhere.

Lorries are parked in queues with these bulging sacks being loaded onto them. But I also saw garbage dumps in front of the shops, with rotting vegetables.

Why are they allowed to rot, when most people in urban areas pay dearly for a meagre 250 gms of vegetables or manage with just some pala (leaves)? The cultivators are despondent.

Thirty-year-old Siripala voiced his concern. They toiled to farm the land during the day and watched over their crops at night. But what did they get in return? They did not have the means or the money to transport the produce to Colombo, the hub of commerce.

They were compelled to sell the vegetables to the small "thoga velenda" (wholesaler) in the town, who in turn had to sell it to the traders who came from Colombo.

And the Colombo traders who threw the money called the tune. They decided in advance how much they would pay for one type of vegetable.

Take the case of capsicum-.they WOULD NOT pay more than Rs. 10 for - can you guess? - the weight-a whole kilo. And to hell with fairplay, toil and sweat. They are in control. They are the marketing mafia. No one dares cross their path.

In my foolishness, I asked Siripala, why they continue to sell to the big mudalalis. Why don't the cultivators stand firm about a "fixed" price?

How could they? Once, they had pleaded for Rs. 12 a kilo for their capsicum. The mudalalis were adamant. It was Rs. 10 or nothing. The cultivators and small traders were insistent. What happened?

I asked, glad that the poor cultivator was at least fighting for his share, even in a small way. Siripala's face told me the answer, even before his lips uttered the words. All the lorries, without exception, went back to Colombo empty. They left the vegetables behind.

They left them to rot. They also left the cultivators in misery. Siripala and the other villagers went back home, a beaten lot. Home to starving wives and children. "Kunu kollete dunne nethnam, api badaginne" (If we don't give it dirt cheap, we starve), he lamented. They do not have storage facilities to keep their produce until the prices improve. All the cultivators tell the same tale.

Muthu Menike, face splattered with mud, smiled and nodded in agreement. She was the mother of two children. Her husband had the same problem.

He cultivated onions on their plot of land. The income barely helped to get them a square meal a day. So she supplemented the family's earnings by cutting bricks. Even that did not bring in enough, unlike those days. No one came for the bricks.

The demand had dropped. What has gone wrong with the system? An obvious reason was that no proper marketing and transport network has been put into place by the authorities concerned, mainly the Ministry of Agriculture.

The ministry has left the small cultivator and trader at the mercy of the big blackmarketeer. Not only does their survival depend on the rains and the vagaries of the weather, they are in the vice-like grip of these mudalalis. It's very easy for us to preach to these humble farmers about banding together, to fight for their rights. But when they know their families are waiting for a meal, they will take the few hundred rupees offered for their produce.

Why doesn't the ministry heed their cry? Why can't it set up a network to enable the cultivators to get the rice, vegetables and fruit to towns where they would get a reasonable price for their produce? Can't they be provided storage facilities, so that they are not exploited by unscrupulous mudalalis who act as middlemen?

Is it that no one cares? Why are these mudalalis allowed to make such big profits at the expense of the farmers who toil so hard? Who has the answers?

We take other countries as models whenever it suits us. Why not study the systems in countries such as India and implement them on a smaller scale here?

The situation is so bad in the agricultural areas of Sri Lanka that the next generation may not take to farming. Most of the youths had set their sights on other livelihoods. We can't blame them. Very soon we may have to import all our food products.

As we left the cultivators, I pondered on the fate of these farmers. The irony is that a kilo of capsicum is more than Rs. 50 in Colombo.

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