EDITORIAL

Greedy bakers

Published

on

Wednesday 21st June, 2023

The ‘Rice Mafia’ has emerged so powerful over the years that it is now running a parallel government of sorts. Wealthy rice millers resort to market manipulations, determine paddy and rice prices and exploit farmers and consumers alike, with impunity. This country is not short of political leaders who talk tough and order crackdowns on protesting workers and students at the drop of a hat, but they unashamedly tug at their forelocks before the powerful rice millers, who have huge slush funds and are known to look after politicians and bankroll election campaigns. Now, the country has come to be troubled by another cartel—the ‘Bread Mafia’, which, too, defies the writ of the state, and exploits the public.

Bread always falls on the buttered side for Sri Lankans. All bakery owners, save a few decent ones, continue to fleece the public by selling bread underweight at unconscionably high prices. A loaf of bread weighing less than 350g sells at prices ranging from Rs. 160 to Rs. 180. It is only in some supermarkets that bread of the right weight (450g) is available, albeit at Rs. 150 a loaf. The Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) does precious little to nab and prosecute the errant bakers. Instead, it is busy conducting raids in search of overpriced eggs.

Bakery owners have decided to reduce bread prices by Rs. 10 at long last. Their association says they have done so in response to a request from Trade Minister Nalin Fernando. One wonders whether Minister Fernando has, on the pretext of helping the public, done the unscrupulous bakers a big favour by asking them to reduce the prices of their products by only Rs. 10. He should have had the cost of producing a loaf of bread estimated properly before asking for a price reduction. There is reason to believe that the prices of all bakery products can be further reduced. In fact, some bakers have been considerate enough to sell bread at Rs. 110 a loaf and slash the prices of other products such as buns; they have said, in interviews with local television channels, that they still earn profits. If so, why can’t other bakers be made to do likewise?

The kind-hearted bakers who have reduced the prices of their products of their own volition for the sake of fellow citizens, many of who are below the breadline, deserve praise.

The retail price of a kilo of wheat flour at Sathosa is Rs. 195, and its wholesale price must be much lower. The prices of sugar, gas, diesel, etc., have also dropped. Besides, the government is utilising public funds to import eggs for bakers at Rs. 35 each. It therefore defies comprehension why bakery owners are allowed to determine bread prices according to their whims and fancies and make huge profits at the expense of consumers.

The Trade Minister vows to get tough with the businesses that fleece the public, but he does not match his words with deeds. When he confronts the greedy bakers, he floats like a bee and stings like a butterfly, so to speak.

There is a correlation between high food prices and social unrest. One may recall that soaring bread prices ignited public anger ahead of the French Revolution. Sri Lankans have voted governments out of power over rice/bread prices. One of the main election promises of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in 1994, when she became Prime Minister and President in quick succession, was to bring down the price of a loaf of bread to Rs. 3.50 from Rs. 5.00! Last year, irate masses took to the streets, demanding the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa because essentials, especially food items, were in short supply and their prices were extremely high. Hence the incumbent government, which has undertaken to maintain political stability and sort out the economy, had better do everything in its power to ensure that nobody jacks up food prices, thereby creating conditions for another popular uprising. The Central Bank insists that the headline inflation has declined sharply over the past several months, but this drop is not reflected in food prices, which are kept artificially high.

A government that is not capable of protecting the interests of the public against a bunch of bakers is not worth its salt.

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