– On March 8, various events marked International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to recognise the role of women around the world and their contribution to home, society and country, indeed the world at large. To call them the ‘fairer sex’ as they were once referred to as a compliment may not be politically correct in modern times, illustrating how the lexicon has also changed with changing mores.
Equal rights are their fundamental theme – equal pay for equal work as the men; equal opportunities etc., that have also seen the downside where men no longer offer their seat in a bus to a woman as was the case in a bygone era.
It is sometimes amusing, if not annoying to see diktats coming from the outside world demanding gender equality in Sri Lanka when this country has made vast strides on that front starting from universal adult franchise way back in 1931 to universal health and education access. Yet clearly, there is more to be done in bringing about parity.
Whether a stipulated quota for women in Parliament or Local Government councils is the panacea for all ills given the male-dominated corrupt political environment is questionable. There’s so much more that can be done outside the legislative bodies in real terms by the many women already engaged in numerous social service organisations. Unfortunately, the present generation has been unable to get as actively involved as their elders due to pressures at their workplaces.
Around the globe, there was a rallying call on March 8 under the theme “Be Bold For Change” calling for “ground-breaking action” to build a more gender-inclusive world. Even in the United States, there were complaints of discrimination with a demand for a ‘Day without Women’, with women workers staying at home on that day to prove a point.
Issues like violence against women, sexual abuse, maternal mortality, femicide and HIV infection, the lack of economic security and leadership positions and the lack of respect from the opposite sex were among the gamut of issues that still concern women worldwide. In some countries women are not allowed to drive a car and girls not allowed to go to school.
Amidst all this, we keep returning to one of our biggest issues – that of working women in West Asia. Last year, about this time, we referred to these women breaking their backs doing menial jobs in those inhospitable climes, leaving their families and a string of social problems back home.
There are more than half a million of these women workers and governments continue to give them step-motherly treatment even though it is their sweat and tears that put money in our national purse. We said last year that there is a huge dearth of women diplomats stationed in West Asia to counsel and comfort these working women who have diverse needs, some of them psychological.
Alas, this call has fallen on deaf ears – for years, at Government level. At least now that there is a woman Minister of Foreign Employment, she could use her influence in the Cabinet even if the Foreign Ministry is dragging its feet on the matter. As everyone agrees, March 8 ought not to be the only day of the year to focus on the rights and plight of women.
The rice scandal
Alarm bells were rung with the dawn of 2017 that the worst drought in four decades was going to create a major shortfall of the staple food of the people of Sri Lanka — rice. Foreign Governments were asked for help. But how much of this problem is of the Government’s own making?
In 2015, Sri Lanka recorded a good paddy yield showing a 42.6 per cent increase compared to the previous year bringing in a total yield of 4.8 million metric tonnes.
The Central Bank annual report for 2015 went on to say; ‘The increased paddy production during the year and the large volatility observed in production in the past few years highlight the need for the country to build a rolling stock of paddy through improved storage facilities, while encouraging the manufacturers of value added rice based products, and exploring the possibility of exporting excess rice production’.
However, Sri Lanka has now gone on to call for food aid and import rice on the grounds of a shortage. Despite the drought conditions experienced during 2016, farmers in Polonnaruwa (a district which brings the highest paddy production along with Ampara) whom the Sunday Times interviewed this week (please see Page 10) believe that paddy production has not been that bad to have to rush to import rice.
They claim that most of the stocks end up with big-time rice millers who are hoarding stocks until the prices are favourable to them. It is the main millers — commonly referred to as the ‘paddy mafia’ who dispatch their lorries to areas where the paddy yield is high and purchase stocks. Our INSIGHT Team saw one of the Polonnaruwa storage facilities, the size of a football field. The Government’s Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) is thoroughly inadequate to meet this private sector domination. In Parliament, a TNA MP accused the PMB itself of holding back stocks — in a Public-Private Partnership of a nefarious kind. The harvesting season is just starting and the situation will be the same, farmers told our reporters.
Small-time paddy millers say they do not get sufficient stocks to be milled through the PMB and that they do not have the capacity to buy paddy from the farmers as some of the main millers do by sending containers into interior areas.
Pakistan and Indonesia have come forward to donate 10,000 M/t and 5,000 M/t of rice. It has now become a bad habit for a Government to be asking for foreign assistance at every turn without putting its own house in order.
The Government has now given permission to import 250,000 M/t of rice and the import duty on rice was reduced so that it can be sold at a lower price. However, there is evidence that the imported rice is being mixed with local rice and sold at a higher price. The Consumer Affairs Authority is conducting raids, but with limited officials it has faced problems.
As a result, consumers continue to pay a high price for rice – between Rs 80 and 100 a kg, adding to the cost of living.
Then there is the unscrupulous trader who uses a deadly dye to turn white rice to red. In Polonnaruwa, a court held that a consignment was not even fit for animals and had to be burnt as our front page picture depicted a fortnight back. The trader was fined Rs. 3,000 for this as the law stipulates. From top to bottom, the business of rice reeks.
This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka