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Sri Lanka: Onion and potato farmers in dire straits

Sri Lanka has been hit with heavy rains over the past fortnight, breaking the dry season that was experienced by some areas in the island for months. Whilst rain, unless on crops ready to be harvested, spells good news for farmers, this bout of rain came when farmers were facing price uncertainties about their just-completed harvests. The onion and potato farmers are the ones who have been affected worst. The farmers who struggled for months to survive, even pawning their jewellery, have to face a struggle to sell their harvest. There is no guaranteed price for potatoes and onions.

Even if there is a fixed price it is hardly sufficient to compensate for their efforts. They have to struggle, sometimes for weeks at end, to sell their crops. There are many intermediaries who are prepared to buy them for low prices, but farmers do not have facilities to store their produce properly. The humid weather expedites the process of rotting, and produce – which would anyway secure low prices – are destroyed before they even get to the point of selling.
President of United Farmer Organization of Ambewela, W.H. Karunaratna questions whether the effect of the rupee devaluation is not relevant to the process of purchasing the produce from the farmers. In the context of three to four fold increases in seed potato and other production costs, farmers are compelled to spend more money. But the income they get for their produce is declining. Karunaratna criticizing the role of government in the process of purchasing produce from the farmers has this to say.

“Every year, during the harvesting of potatoes, government imports them from abroad. Imported potatoes are sold Rs.5-10 below our price. As a result price of potatoes in the market goes down. Although they say they will impose a tax on imported potatoes the price remains the same. Although they buy only at Rs. 40-45 from us, a kilo of potato in the market sells at a price of around Rs.80-100. Most farmers in the Uva province come to the Keppitipola Economic Centre to sell their produce. Although farmers from places such as Bandarawela, Haputale, Welimada, Uva- Paranagama and Nuwara-Eliya come
to Keppitipola Economic Centre they complain that the intermediaries, who buy their produce at very low prices, hoodwink them.

“It was 10-12 years ago that the Welimada Special Economic centre was established. Then we were very happy thinking that we will get a good price for our produce. But it was only a dream. Though there was some system at the beginning now few traders have got together to do their business in this government building. Government is only collecting the rent. There is no law. No system and no fixed price.

Karunaratna further says that the government does not intervene except to purchase their produce at a low price through Sathosa. He says government must intervene from the field up to the level of the consumer. “It is the multi-national companies that supply everything. Although Sri Lanka is an agricultural country and there is a Minister of Agriculture and a Minster for Consumer Affairs and also hundreds of officials connected with agriculture, it is the multi-national companies that supply all our requirements.”


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