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Consider advantages of plastic crates
The Government's decision to transport fruits and vegetables in plastic crates ran into mischief in several parts of the country.

Certain Opposition parties which failed to create unrest in the country, literally went to town and played an active role in the demonstrations in key areas. However, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's timely intervention helped find an amicable solution to overcome an artificial scarcity of vegetables and fruits during the festive season.

The implementation of the mandatory plastic crates rule has been put off by a month, following the meeting between the President and traders at the Presidential Secretariat on Wednesday. A grace period of one month has been given to farmers and traders to comply with the new regulations which would help check waste to a large extent.

The Government's decision to use plastic crates in the transport of vegetables and fruits was taken about a year ago with the aim of cutting down waste. This was done in consultation with the vendors and the Government gave ample time to farmers and transporters to comply with the new regulations.

The Government had stressed the importance of introducing new plastic crates six years ago and even drawn up an easy payment scheme for vendors to buy crates. Plastic crates were sold at concessionary prices and those unable to purchase them outright were given the option of even hiring them at a nominal rate.

The Trade Ministry also discussed a mechanism to transport plastic crates back to their original destinations, in the event the transporters wished to transport any other goods on their return journey. The practical difficulties, if any, could be resolved through negotiation, if the farmers are sincerely interested in increasing productivity.

Moreover, the new regulation will not affect people transporting vegetables to their homes and in three-wheelers and land masters which transport vegetables or fruits. Only large-scale fruit and vegetable transporting vehicles will be subjected to the new rule.

The use of plastic crates was introduced by the Government with the concurrence of vendors to protect consumers who invariably bear the brunt of waste due to improper packaging and delivery. It is estimated that up to 40 percent of the produce is wasted due to improper transportation.

Needless to say, it's the poor consumer who eventually foots the bill of the waste as well, apart from the exorbitant prices added by middlemen. The retail prices of the vegetables and fruits are determined by adding the 40 percent waste. Even a kindergarten child knows that the high percentage of the production that goes waste contributes in no small measure to increase the market price of vegetables and fruits.

The current waste due to improper packaging and delivery is borne by consumers. The Government's intention in introducing plastic crates for transportation was chiefly to reduce the 40 percent waste and pass on that advantage to farmers and consumers. If waste could be reduced to its barest minimum, the farmers would get a better price for their produce.

Simultaneously, consumers too could purchase fresh vegetables at cheaper prices. Apart from the direct benefits to farmers and consumers alike, the use of plastic crates to transport vegetables would result in a saving of Rs 20 billion annually.

It is most unfortunate that the Opposition is unable to comprehend this simple logic. It is crystal clear that petty political goals get the better of them. In this scenario, the high drama unfolded at a time when the Opposition ran out of slogans and incidents to make its presence felt. Hence, the eruption was a golden opportunity for certain Opposition politicians.

The protest staged by a group of vendors at the Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre opposing the introduction of plastic crates was orchestrated by certain groups with vested interests. It seems that some people engaged in selling sacks to the vegetable trade also had a hand in the protest campaign at the Meegoda Economic Centre.

Had all those who took part in last week's protests been genuine farmers, there would have been a surplus of vegetables in the country and Sri Lanka could have been ranked a leading exporter of fruits and vegetables. Nevertheless, certain political elements mingled with the crowds in their numbers and blew it out of proportion.

The use of plastic crates to transport vegetables was to be made mandatory from January 1, 2011. It was, however, put on hold as the Government thought it best to give ample time to vendors to adapt themselves to the change.

The Opposition should be ashamed of itself in attempting to use farmers as scapegoats to achieve its petty political goals. None could deny that it was the UPFA Government, under President Rajapaksa, that granted a massive fertiliser subsidy for farmers. More importantly, only Sri Lanka has provided such a subsidy over a long period of time.

The subsidy, offered initially for paddy cultivation in 2005, has now been extended to all crops. Though fertiliser prices have increased sharply, the Government has not increased the minimum price of fertiliser. The Government spends around Rs. 50,000 million annually to provide the fertiliser subsidy.

President Rajapaksa, who cares for the farming community in the villages, has always maintained an unequivocal stand on the fertiliser subsidy and continued to grant it even when the Government had to spend colossal sums of money in its battle against terrorism. This was purely because the Government considers the fertiliser subsidy and other assistance to agricultural activities an investment for the future.

Hence, the Opposition should understand that it could never use the country's precious farming community to pressurise the Government. Farmers, vendors and transporters, as a group, should give serious thought before jumping to conclusions. They should weigh the pros and cons and understand that the 40 percent waste could be overcome by using plastic crates. There are bound to be issues and practical difficulties initially, but it should be borne in mind that this decision would be beneficial to one and all in the long run.

Checking waste would undoubtedly also help Sri Lanka to meet its future challenges in food security. The Opposition should desist from attempting to exploit this issue to gain undue political mileage.

Farmers and vendors would certainly change their mindset, if they are enlightened on the added benefits on the use of plastic crates.

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