Food mafia in Dambulla

Jaffna produce bought cheap; southern farmer throws produce; high prices in Colombo

Politically-backed traders at the Dambulla Economic Centre are buying increasing supplies of vegetables from the farmers of the liberated Northern Province forcing growers elsewhere to throw their produce to the animals as prices are artificially manipulated, a Sunday Times investigation has revealed.

Dambulla dominates nearly 65 percent of the vegetable market and it is from here that vegetable are dispatched to Colombo, and other main towns in the southern parts of the country.

The racket has completely negated the government's opening up of the economy in the north and kept vegetable prices high for consumers in the South. A kilo of green chillies sold in Jaffna for Rs. 30 is sold in Colombo for Rs. 300.

Of late, an increasing number of lorries carrying vegetables and other products have been coming in from the north to the south. But the items are first unloaded at Dambulla and resold to traders from Pettah in Colombo. In the process, many traders make a huge profit.

Red onions and beetroot are among the items which have been transported from Jaffna along the A 9 road with about 10 lorries reaching the Dambulla Economic Centre every other day. The flow has reduced prices at the market, but outside, the consumers were buying vegetables at exorbitant prices.

Products from Nuwara Eliya are also sent to Dambulla and re-priced before being transferred to Colombo.Investigations also revealed that traders in Dambulla were offering higher commissions to middle men than Colombo to attract them to Dambulla. This has enabled them to dominate the market.

In another development, small farmers in and around Dambulla who supplied vegetables to the centre there, find it difficult to sell their products at a reasonable price because the traders were going for produce from the north. These farmers say that as a result of market manipulation by the traders, they have to throw away their fast perishable stocks.

Consumer Services Minister Bandula Gunawardena conceded that Dambulla traders were dominating the vegetable market, taking advantage of the government’s policy of non-intervention in vegetable distribution and sales.

“We have a counter-plan to control the prices. We will allow the producer to directly bring his produce to markets, avoiding the middle men. Under this plan, the government hopes to set up centres in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Medawachchiya and Batticaloa enabling the farmers to bring their produce directly to these places,” the minister said.

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