Farmers at the receiving end of mind-boggling greed
by Nirmala Kannangara
Large-scale paddy purchasers will no longer be able to buy paddy for a pittance once the Court of Appeal determination is delivered instructing the government to implement Clause 7 of the Paddy Marketing Board Act No. 14 of 1971.
The much-awaited court determination, expected to be delivered on Tuesday, April 26, will ensure registered paddy buyers will be able to purchase paddy stocks only at the government guaranteed price.
Clause 7 of the Paddy Marketing Board Act says, ‘Where there is a guaranteed price fixed under the Agricultural Products (Guaranteed Prices and Control of Hulling and Milling) Act for paddy or for any grade of paddy, or under this Act for any variety of paddy or any grade of any variety of paddy, the Board or the authorised purchaser shall not pay for the purchase of such paddy or such grade of paddy or such variety of paddy or any grade of any such variety of paddy a price of their wish than such guaranteed price’.
Although this Act was enacted in 1971, it has neither been annulled nor amended since then. Taking advantage of this, the All Ceylon Farmers Association recently filed a petition in the Court of Appeal seeking a court directive to the government to implement Clause 7 of the Paddy Marketing Board Act to prevent large-scale rice mill owners from purchasing paddy stocks for a pittance.
“There is an ongoing mafia where small-scale mill owners are prevented from purchasing paddy at a higher price by large-scale rice mill owners in Polonnaruwa,” National Organiser, All Ceylon Farmers Association, Namal Karunaratne said.
According to him, although the government gives a guaranteed price for the paddy, the Paddy Marketing Board purchases only 2,000kg of paddy from each farmer per season.
“There are farmers who do not sell their crops but keep them for their own use, but most of the farmers engage in this industry to earn an income. When the government does not purchase the entire crop, they are unable to sell the remaining stock for the guaranteed price but for a pittance. When President Maithripala Sirisena came into power he promised Rs. 50 per kilo for samba paddy and Rs. 45 for nadu paddy. But now the fixed price for samba paddy has come down to Rs. 41 and nadu to Rs. 35. The Paddy Marketing Board stores purchase the paddy at these prices. However, from the remaining stock, the large-scale rice mill owners purchase nadu paddy for Rs.18 and samba between Rs. 25 to Rs. 35 which is a huge loss to the farmers,” Karunaratne said.
Karunaratne said their organisation is eagerly awaiting the court determination in nine days so farmers will be able to sell their crop to registered paddy purchasers for the fixed price and not for a lesser price.
“Clause 7 of the Paddy Marketing Board Act says paddy can be purchased only by registered buyers and they too have to buy the paddy at the guaranteed price and not a lower price which is exactly what the farmers want,” Karunaratne claimed.
However Karunaratne said he is doubtful as to whether the government will bring down the guaranteed price further once the court ruling is given, in order to facilitate the two most powerful rice mill owners in the country.
The two Dons of the Paddy Mafia Dudley Sirisena & Siripala Gamlath
“These two owners have political backing. These two parties will certainly influence the government hierarchy and spend any amount of money on them and bring down the guaranteed price so the court ruling will not affect them at all,” Karunaratne alleged. Accusing President Sirisena’s brother Dudley Sirisena and UPFA MP for Polonnaruwa District Siripala Gamlath, the two owners of Araliya and Nipuna rice mills respectively, of running a paddy purchasing mafia over the past two decades, Karunaratne said small-scale rice mill owners who were willing to pay a higher price for paddy than Sirisena and Gamlath were willing to pay, had come under attack on several occasions.
“Sirisena and Gamlath don’t want small rice mill owners to pay the farmers more than what they pay. There were many instances when such lorry loads of paddy were ‘captured’ by Sirisena and Gamlath goons, stocks weighed and their prices paid and lorry drivers and cleaners slapped and threatened not to purchase paddy at a higher price in future. Because of such threats the paddy farmers have had to sell their stocks at extremely low prices and suffer silently incurring huge losses,” Karunaratne alleged.
Karunaratne further accused Agriculture Minister Duminda Dissanayake of failure to take necessary action against the managers at paddy purchasing centres where the paddy farmers are further harassed.
“Unless the water percentage in paddy is less than 14 percent, paddy purchasing centres do not buy the paddy. If the water level is more than 14 percent, the paddy cannot be stored for a longer period as itgets spoiled. However, stocks of paddy thus rejected by the centres are taken back less than 24 hours later, not by the farmers but by middlemen. Once the paddy stocks are refused, the farmers who bring the paddy in hired vehicles cannot take it back paying more hiring fees and are tempted to sell them to the middlemen for a lesser price. These middlemen, who give commissions to the managers at the paddy marketing board purchasing centres, sell the wet paddy back to these centres within a few hours. It is because of these irregularities that huge stocks of paddy get wasted,” Karunaratne said.
According to Karunaratne, if the government installs paddy drying machines, it would be easy for farmers to pay to have their bumper stocks dried and sell them to the purchasing centres without any hassle.
“None of the government paddy purchasing centres in the country have these machines but the Dudley Sirisena and Siripala Gamlath mills have these facilities. If the government gets down these machines, farmers are ready to pay and get their stocks of paddy dried. If such a mechanism is introduced, the stocks of paddy that are piled up in paddy stores will not be wasted and a great deal of money can be saved,” Karunaratne said.
Karunaratne further said that if such machines are installed, the Paddy Marketing Board will be able to purchase more paddy from farmers. “The reason why the government does not want to buy more than 2,000kg of paddy from each farmer is that in the event the paddy gets spoiled, it is a huge loss to the government. If the paddy could be dried properly, then it would not be an issue for the government to spend more money to purchase locally grown paddy rather than importing rice from Asian countries spending our foreign exchange,” he said. Accusing the government of not spending money to install these drying machines but planning to spend lavishly to purchase a building spending millions to house the Agriculture Ministry, Karunaratne said it is clear that these politicians do not want to provide facilities for the downtrodden paddy farmers in the country but to spend public money for their luxury.
“Why cannot they buy a building that does not cost so much? If the yahapalana government really wants to develop the country and help the people why cannot they think of getting down these drying machines and install them in each paddy purchasing centre and minimise the current wastage at these paddy stores? Are we such a rich country as to spend Rs. 1,270 millionto purchase a building?
“Why can’t the President and Prime Minister intervene and address the long-standing issues faced by their voters - the paddy farmers – and spend on paddy drying machines instead of spending millions on a building for the Minister and his staff to spend their time in the lap of luxury?’” Karunaratne queried.
Karunaratne further revealed how the Irrigation Department spent Rs. 30.8 million for a seminar for farmers at the BMICH recently which showed that the present regime too is following the former regime’s tactics to earn money.
“This seminar was held at the BMICH. Who approved the spending of such a huge amount of taxpayer money for an occasion which lasted a few hours? Isn’t this corruption? On what did they spend such a big amount? The Irrigation Ministry should reveal all these facts to the general public,” he added.
However, reliable sources from the Irrigation Department on condition of anonymity said that although the estimated cost for this seminar was Rs. 30 million the Department had spent Rs. 37 million and is yet to give a breakdown of the expenses.
“Although we expected this government to spend only on the country’s development and not spend money unnecessarily, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government too is misappropriating state funds just the way Rajapaksa government did,” sources said.
Meanwhile it has also been revealed that the Agriculture Ministry had spent Rs. 800 million for a three-day exhibition titled Vasa Visa Nethi Ahara.
“Is this what the country wants? People never voted this government into power to misappropriate state funds. The previous regime was sent home for this same reason and if the present government too is following in the footsteps of the Rajapaksa regime, the people will topple this government soon,” Karunaratne added.
However, Agriculture Minister Duminda Dissanayake said that it is not the government’s responsibility to provide paddy drying machines but by the farmer organisations.
“It is good if the government can provide these machines to all paddy purchasing centers, but the government’s responsibility is to provide other facilities for farmers – to purchase the paddy for a fixed price, to give fertilizer subsidies but not machinery,” Dissanayake said.
Commenting on the allegations levelled against the Agriculture Ministry for their plan to purchase a building to house the ministry for Rs.1,270 million, Minister Dissanayake said that it is not the Agriculture Ministry that will spend to purchase the new building but either the Sri Lanka Parliament or the Treasury. “The building our ministry is now housed is our own property. The Parliament wanted us to hand it over to them for their needs. Hence we have to move out of this building and either it is the parliament or the treasury that will have to give us money to buy another building. Although we are going to purchase a new building we will not curtail any facility given to our paddy farmers,” Dissanayake claimed.
The minister further said that the money that was spent on vasa visa nethi ahara could have been stopped if any person came up with new ideas on how to conduct exhibitions without giving publicity and providing necessary facilities for those who took part at the exhibition.
“It is very good if somebody can tell us how to conduct exhibitions without spending money which would certainly help out to save millions of rupees. We need new creative ideas to hold such exhibitions without giving any publicity and spending on those who take part in the programmes. I am available in my ministry every Wednesday and would like to welcome any party or an individual if they can tell us how to hold any public meeting, exhibition or even a seminar without spending public funds, without levelling allegations against us,” Dissanayake added.