What price New Year celebrations?        

Shopping malls are promising the sun and the moon to shoppers for the upcoming Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Newspaper advertisements scream that customers will receive discounts up to 60%. Too bad, we can’t afford to go on shopping sprees, as before. Sri Lankans have been receiving blows below the belt for some time, with regard to the government policy on price control of essential commodities. Special offers, discounts and the sales staff greeting customers with bright smiles don’t reflect the true atmosphere at shopping malls. From the moment patrons grab their carts and wind up at the cashiers, hearts beat aloud for fear of not being able to survive the month, after settling a thumping bill.

Apart from the luxuries that these shopping malls have to offer, most Sri Lankans wonder to what levels they should curtail their spending, when shopping for the New Year. New Year traditions and the much praised Sri Lankan hospitality could take a beating this festive season, due to the high prices of goods. Be the least surprised this New Year, if the kevum, kokis and aasmi have shrunk in size and the much loved katta sambal is served only for the first helping of milk rice.

The news segment on one of the country’s television channels, on Wednesday, brought a shock. The news presenter read that the businessmen, who stock rice in bulk, would be compelled to jack up prices during the festive season. The reason for this, they say, is due to the fluctuating patterns in the present weather conditions. Television viewers wouldn’t doubt the credibility of the television channel’s reporting. But they wouldn’t ‘buy’ the story that the price hike on rice was influenced by the weather.

The present rice stocks would have been accumulated from harvests many months ago, probably, when the weather was fine. We all know that businessmen, who stock rice, have the habit of making life miserable for us by creating an artificial shortage of rice. However confusing the reasons given for these price hikes are, one thing is clear: the government’s role in controlling the prices of an essential item such as rice, seems inadequate. Rice is an essential commodity but, big time businessmen, with vested interests, seem so powerful in deciding what price we pay for rice and its supply to the market. Already, essentials such as meat and eggs are off the Consumer Price Index. Isn’t the presence of rice, amongst essential goods, threatened?

There was also much speculation in the past few days of a price increase on petrol. The Sri Lankan Government has mastered reading the minds of the people. They wouldn’t be that foolish to jack up prices of essential goods, especially at a time when the country’s majority is gearing up to celebrate an event as important as the New Year. We may not see price hikes in fuel, the whole of next month. This would give us an opportunity to use our vehicles generously during the New Year, a period when all work, including the public transport service comes to a virtual halt.

The New Year is a time when one could measure a person’s progress. There would be little to talk of progress, if one has to make do with the previous year’s budget, when celebrating the New Year. While we toil to earn that extra income to have a decent assortment of food on New Year’s day, the government continues to spend lavishly on an ongoing war and maintaining a ‘jumbo’ Cabinet. The living standards of the present government’s ministers are higher than that compared with those in the previous governments. In reality, this reflects the progress of the citizenry, because they are paying more taxes to the government than before.

The New Year won’t be complete, if only the Sinhalese celebrate it. The Hindus love to make milk rice just as we do, attend religious ceremonies in the kovil and, most importantly, visit their loved ones and relatives, even if they have to travel far and wide within the island. But the prevailing security situation in the country has curtailed their liberties. They might have visions of hiring a vehicle to visit their loved ones. Most of these looked-forward-to visits could be best termed as family reunions they dream of. With regard to the majority, their visions of such visits remain blurred.

The Koha will sing, the world will spin and April 13 will come in a jiffy. All of this is inevitable. Anywhere in the world, a difference that upgrades the life of people comes when focus is shifted from the inevitable to what can be changed. Change need not be a prominent word in the vocabularies of kids and teenagers only. Grownups too, could change themselves, even the world. (Hail Dr. Spencer Johnson for penning the bestseller ‘Who moved my cheese’). Flipping through this week’s newspapers, it was disheartening for to read that the government plans to appoint a unit, with powers to curtail media freedom further. Finishing with that bad news, I spotted something that cheered me up. A New Year advertisement published by a renowned company, had the words ‘An aluth attitude’ alongside a picture of a bundle of unlit crackers. The rest of the advertisement read, ‘You don’t have to make a big noise’.

Sri Lanka, as a country, needs an attitude change from the top, where the focus should be on the welfare of its citizenry.