A surplus of rice with acute malnutrition

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 21 Sep 2003

COLOMBO: Till very recent times, the goviya (padi farmer) was venerated and even described in terms of a king. Ancient folklore about the goviya clad only in his loin cloth and daubed in mud, if taken out of his field and washed, being fit to be placed on a throne, was often recalled particularly by politicians. 

Even as recently as in 1977, those who had been able to get the highest yield per acre were accorded the status of govi rajas, and given free jaunts to Thailand. But with the dawn of the new millennium, the kings have become paupers. 

Padi cultivators, often described as the backbone of the nation, are facing a very grave and bleak future after being praised and eulogised in the half century after Independence. With the dawn of this hi-tech and hi-fi age, the man in the loin cloth, who virtually fed the nation, has become an anachronism. He is no longer wanted. There is a surplus of padi, we are told. The price is too high and cheaper rice could be imported by the shipload. 

On Wednesday, we reported the claim made by the general secretary of the All Ceylon Peasants Federation accusing the Agriculture Minister of cooking up statistics to fit the theories of the World Bank and international money-lending institutions. 

He alleged that this claim of “surplus padi” was a myth created to mislead the farming community and the public. 

The accusation of the cooked-up statistics cannot be dismissed summarily, taking into consideration that even Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was misled into believing about bountiful harvests and thereby a prosperous electorate. He suffered a disastrous defeat. 

Even if the statistics are taken as correct, the question could be asked whether this amounts to “surplus production.” This contention is based on the fact that we are consuming very much less rice than in the 50s and 60s. 

People are now consuming imported wheat in the form of bread much more than rice. 

Advocates of change would claim that today’s hamburger generation will not be able to switch back to buth-curry but the great majority of the rural folk will love it. Besides, medical research that frowned on rice and preferred bread now speak well of the benefits of unpolished red rice. 

This “surplus rice” theory neatly fits into the new international economic order that is descending on the Third world. Globalisation and the market economy permit free imports into the poor countries. Thus, people eat bread, which costs less than rice. Besides, fuel prices keep escalating, making cooking of rice more expensive. 

The government, to avoid an impending political-economic crisis, made a grant of Rs740mil recently to buy padi stuck in cooperative stores. Had the government increased import duty on wheat flour, would it not have resulted in the rice “surplus” vanishing? But how could they do that against World Bank-IMF advice? 

Meanwhile, we are told that there is acute malnutrition in urban and rural areas. Acute malnutrition and “surplus rice” with the economy picking up? This is economic gobbledegook.  

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