Traders have imported rice under local branding– Duminda Dissanayake
By Charminda Rodrigo
Minister of Agriculture, Duminda Dissanayake says the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is waiting to see what stance former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would take at the Local Government elections.
"We are watching to see whether he supports the SLFP or not," he said.
Excerpts of the interview:
?: The issue regarding the new office complex for the Agriculture Ministry, surfaces from time to time in the media, and this time it is with a price tag loss of over Rs 800 million to the government. What is really happening over this deal?
A: I have no confirmation on the figure that is mentioned by the media. I did not want the new premises but Parliament insisted that they need to utilize my present office premises to use as office space for some committees. I'm not going to explain this over and over again, as I have explained it to the media on several occasions. Delay was caused by the refurbishing work entrusted to the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB). They had called for tenders, and engaged a party that had outbid in the process, on an appeal.
We need to understand this is all part of the regulations. We always follow the rules and maintain transparency when contracting with suppliers. This is not due to any government inefficiency; we always stick to the principles of good governance.
?: Have you at any point had any misunderstanding over this issue?
A: No. I have never had a misunderstanding or a grudge over this issue with the Prime Minister.
?: President exercises his executive powers through the Cabinet. As the Minister of Agriculture you are entrusted to set policy for the ministry that is under your purview. The Director General of Agriculture had stated that young jak leaves and young croton leaves are edible. Apart from suggesting that the Joint Opposition should to eat those leaves during the recent Peraliyaka Erambuma rally in Nugegoda, what is your ministry striving to achieve ?
A: This is the very first time I'm making a remark on this to the media, on this political gimmick. This is a pure distortion of parts of the inaugural address delivered by the DG at a workshop. It is being maliciously used, by those with a political agenda. The statement was a distortion of a presentation he made at a two-day workshop held under the title, 'Conservation and Utilization of Local Varieties, Traditional Knowledge Associated with Genetic Resources and Agriculture'. The Joint Opposition took it to the media as the countermeasure of the government for the prevailing drought situation. Nobody can be blamed for the drought; it's a natural phenomenon. The politicians and media were on a mission to mislead the public at a time when they were really running out of decent political slogans to use against the government.
?: As the minister you remained silent, when this issue was raised in the public domain, any reasons behind this silence?
A: Why do we condole with such false allegations, by expressing opinions about it? I think it's a waste of time. We have not taken any policy decision to promote any alternative foods to the public. So why should we worry about some remarks, made by a ministry official when delivering a speech? I knew the real story behind the remarks made by the DG, so I did not want to make a public spectacle by providing undue publicity to an already poor act.
?: In your estimation, what is the impact of the drought crisis, on agricultural production, this season?
A: As of statistics received, on Monday (13), we usually cultivate approximately 800,000 hectares of rice, during this season. But this year, our farmers were able to harvest only 490,000 hectares due to the weather change. We couldn' cultivate nearly 310,000 hectares. Even out of the 490,000 hectares that have already been cultivated, some have been affected in different degrees by the severe drought. Unfortunately, we cannot hope for a good crop from that portion. We anticipated 1.7 million bushels of rice this season; however, in reality we could only hope to get 1.3 million bushels.
We need approximately 200,000 metric tons per month. This whole season we can only produce approximately 800,000 metric tons of rice. That itself is sufficient for nothing more than four months. It would be a sad story if we are unable to produce the 'seed paddy' to be used in the upcoming 'Yala' season. We need 500,000 bushels of seed paddy for the season. Usually the farmers themselves produce 50 per cent of the seed paddy which is needed for their cultivation. But under the prevailing conditions there's a margin of vulnerability; that is if the farmers decide to sell the entire crop at the higher price, without retaining appropriate stocks to cultivate. The ministry had duly notified through provincial councils and divisional secretariats to take action to assist farmers to produce the 'seed paddy' needed for cultivation. Also, I'm submitting a cabinet paper next week to request form the Treasury a sum of Rs.400 million, to purchase 5,000 metric tons from our registered seed paddy manufactures.
?: Government permitted rice imports, as a counter measure against the scarcity which has arisen due to the prevailing drought. Some see that as an attempt to fatten the pockets of some selected large scale rice trader's. How do you see this?
A: In our estimation it is suggested that we should import some rice to balance the deficit in rice production. Large scale rice mill owners foresaw the opportunity beforehand and started ruthlessly stacking up their granaries to sell later at a higher price and to gain an undue profit. There were definite predictions, of a scarcity of rice due to the prevailing drought. It gave greater opportunities to large scale traders. Had the large scale mill owners been fair when purchasing the rice harvest, there wouldn' be any need to import rice to buffer the market requirement, however, they were greedy and tried to fish in troubled waters. The mill owners have been doing this for the past 7-8 months, to artificially create the rice shortage; that is prevailing at present.
The government as a counter measure permitted to import 200,000 metric tons of rice; without specifying a certain variety of rice. Sri Lankan rice market is such it needs 'Nadu' rice more than the other varieties. But in contrast some comparatively expensive varieties of rice such as 'Samba' and 'Basmathi' have entered the market. It was a mistake on the part of the government to have not specified the rice varieties that are permitted; for import.
I got to know on 13 Monday that some of the traders have done their local private branding of rice overseas and started importing rice in packs implying that it is produced locally. Any shipment of rice imported to the country should be packed here within our border. Now what actually happens is that the rice imported to the country is also sold at the same price as what is produced locally, when it enters the market in a bag with local branding. This is a crime committed by importers to loot money by manipulating the government policy. This entire activity does not fall under my ministry, so I have no say in that.
?: National Organizer of the All Ceylon Peasants' Federation, Namal Karunaratne, had expressed his concerns, on the impact of rice imports, when purchasing their rice this season. What are your remarks on this?
A: I must admit that's a fair assumption. When importing rice, the government intends to pay the lowest rate, to provide to the consumers at the lowest price possible. When purchasing from local farmers, the price is set at a moderate rate to look into the best interests of both the farmers and consumers. Even Namal Karunaratne himself would have done the same thing if he had to make the call. There's a clear disparity between these two purchasing decisions. This may cause a fluctuation in the rice market.
The government clearly was on the stance of good governance on rice imports. An open call was made to potential suppliers rather than hand picking those who have had certain political affiliations like during the past government. As I said, the government with good intention had not restricted the variety of rice that could be imported. But the importers have played an unfair game by giving less priority to the real market requirement.
See, had we pre-assigned the variety of rice to be imported based on individuals, the same people who criticize our decision would again point the finger and question us on treating the suppliers equally. This is something you need to understand.
?: The government promised probing into allegations of the previous regime, however, it seems like corruption allegations are surfacing from within the good governance government too. How do you see this?
A: People entrusted us to foster good governance in the country. We need to probe into to the current allegations that are against the Good Governance Government, in the same way the authorities investigate the misappropriations that transpired during the previous government. We need to keep our promise to the people. The President had appointed several committees to look into such allegations.
?: An SLFPer, representing the Joint Opposition, had recently said that, they would take Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe into custody, over the Treasury Bond issue, within 72 hours of forming their government, in the near future. What are your remarks on this?
A: First, I would say that we condemn any sort of misconduct. Any offence should not go unpunished irrespective of the position or personal affiliation. As a party we believe in that.
Also, we never behaved like the Joint Opposition. We have probed into allegations according to procedure. If this is what the Joint Opposition really believes in, they cannot say no to inquiries into allegations against the previous regime.
We practice good governance. The President or the government has never attempted to manipulate the process of dispensing justice. People sometimes say that we are inefficient in concluding investigations, in the shortest possible time. Sometimes there's validity in that statement when considering the 'Malwana property' belonging to Basil Rajapaksa. Everyone knows that it belongs to him. But there's a serious delay in the process, as we are adhering to rules and regulations. We always adhere to the principles of good governance. I also must remark, the same people who are ready to probe a complex investigation in 72 hours should at least be prepared to support the on-going investigations without making pathetic public spectacles due to fear of being arrested.
?: Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa says that he is against lands in Hambantota being given to the Chinese and also the establishing of private medical colleges. You were a minister of the previous government. What do you think about these remarks?
A: Both these projects have been introduced during the previous government. SAITM had obtained the approval to operate during the previous government. Mahinda Rajapaksa himself had distributed scholarships to some students. Allocating lands to Chinese ventures had been planned during the previous government. Residents of Hambantota know of this.
There was no open discussion regarding this under the Rajapaksa administration; he did what he wanted to do. We could have aired our views if there had been any discussion in this regard.
?: Members of the Joint Opposition have started meeting the organisers, focussing on the upcoming Local Government polls, starting from Puttalam. Is this going to be a threat to the SLFP?
A: There is no threat to the SLFP. All these leaders were made with votes cast by SLFPers. We are waiting to see what former President Mahinda Rajapaksa's stance will be at the LG elections. To see whether he supports the SLFP or not, it is all that matters. It is something he refuses to disclose, up to now. Mahinda Rajapaksa too has come into power with votes cast by SLFPers. So he has an ethical obligation to say where he stands, otherwise it could transpire as a great injustice to the SLFPers.
?: Minister Susil Premajayantha urges to end the unity between parties in August, when the two-year agreement matures. But the President and you have commented of an extension up to five years. What is the cause of this communication mismatch?
A: See, all this is true. The agreement on the earlier occasion was to stay in the Unity Government for a period of two years.
Later on, it had been extended to five years. We need to formulate the new Constitution and do the many other things which we promised the people.
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