Cheaper coconuts soon - Minister Jagath Pushpakumara
Fair price for consumers:
More incentives for cultivators:
By Uditha KUMARASINGHE
The escalating prices of coconuts during the past few months has turned into a key topic among consumers and on the political platform as well. The Sunday Observer interviewed Coconut Development and Janatha Estate Development Minister Jagath Pushpakumara to ascertain the moves taken by his Ministry to address this situation.
The Minister said the shortage of coconuts and its price hike will not continue. He assured the consumers will be able to purchase coconuts at concessionary rates during the forthcoming New Year festive season. However, the Minister stressed the importance of providing a fair price for consumers and coconut cultivators.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q:What has led to increase the prices of coconuts?
A: It takes nearly 48 months for the process of the entire metamorphosis. Therefore, even the drought which occurred in 2009 has affected the country's coconut production. There was a shortage of 350 million coconuts in 2010 compared with the figure of year 2009. Under Mahinda Chinthana, assistance was given to promote other coconut based by-products as well. This has led to reduce the number of coconuts utilised for consumption.
Three years ago, the country's total coconut oil production was around 30,000 to 39,000 tons. Now nearly 60,000 to 69,000 tons of coconut oil is produced. This shows an increase of 30,000 tons of coconut oil production compared with previous years.
Nearly 9000 coconuts are required to produce a ton of coconut oil. In addition desiccated coconuts are also exported. If we suspend these orders gained from foreign countries, it would affect our foreign exchange earnings in future. Therefore, we have no intention to exert pressure on coconut exports.
Normally the lowest coconut production is recorded from November to January every year. This production gradually increases during May and June. Therefore, this shortage of coconut and the price hike will not continue. I hope the consumers will be able to purchase coconuts concessionary rates during the forthcoming New Year festive season. As the Coconut Development Minister, I should provide a fair price to both the consumers and coconut cultivators. If the people can pay more on bottled water and bottled milk, they should also think of the thousands of coconut cultivators who have engaged in this industry.
Q:How has the Ministry intervened to control the escalating prices of coconuts? Has the Government imported coconuts as the Opposition claims?
A: As the Minister in charge of the Coconut Development, I would like to say with full responsibility that the Government did not import even a single coconut. These are baseless allegations levelled by the Opposition that the Government has imported coconuts from Kerala. These are dreams seen by the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his group. We had also heavy rains for nearly two months and it led to an increase in the prices of coconuts. It was difficult to pluck coconuts and husk them due to rains. This had also resulted in a decline of coconut stocks. However, a coconut which was sold by the coconut cultivators at Rs.35 or Rs.36 last week has come down to Rs.30 or Rs.31 at present due to better weather conditions.
We believe a price of a coconut sold by the cultivators will come down to Rs.24 or Rs.25 by next week.
The cultivators have to spend a large amount of money to cultivate coconuts. They have to wait nearly five or six years to get the harvest.It is not fair to force a decline of the prices of coconuts rapidly. A fair price should be given to those who have engaged in the coconut cultivation. It is my point of view that a coconut cultivator should be able to sell a coconut at least at Rs.30. The Ministry has implemented a program to purchase coconuts from Government estates and cultivators and provide them to the consumers through the CWE outlets and the Coconut Cultivation Board at concessionary rates. We have implemented this program to provide some sort of relief to consumers. But it has been able to control the escalating prices of coconuts to some extent. A coconut is sold at CWE outlets and some super markets at Rs.35.
Q:Has the Ministry implemented any special program to further develop and safeguard the coconut industry?
A: President Mahinda Rajapaksa has decided to provide the fertiliser subsidy to the coconut cultivators as well. A decision has been taken to provide a 50kg bag of fertiliser at Rs.1,000. It is currently priced at between Rs.3,500 to Rs.4,000. In future the President has decided to grant this fertiliser subsidy to other crop sectors as well. This may be a favourable message given to those who have engaged in other cultivation sectors as well.
In order to systematically expedite coconut cultivation, one million Home Economic Units program will be implemented this year with the assistance of Samurdhi beneficiaries and school children. In addition, a program will also be commenced this year to cultivate four million coconut saplings. Our intention is to cultivate 20 million coconut saplings within the next five years. The President has given us a target of producing 350 million coconuts by 2015. In order to achieve this target, the Ministry has already taken a series of measures to provide treatments for various diseases affecting coconut cultivation and prevent their spread.
Q:The fragmentation of coconut lands has also led to a decline in the country's coconut production. How can the Ministry intervene to prevent such activities?
A: We have already given instructions to the Land Fragmentation Board not to grant permission to fragment any coconut land. In future, we hope to present legislation before Parliament to completely ban the fragmentation of coconut lands.
Q:Has the Ministry formulated any mechanism to provide assistance and concessions to those who have engaged in coconut cultivation?
A: There is a dearth of coconut development officers who provide technical instructions to coconut cultivators. We have discussed with the Treasury to recruit new coconut development officers and use their service to educate coconut cultivators. We will also seek the assistance of Agriculture Research and Production Assistants, Grama Niladaris and Samurdhi Development Officers to develop this sector. There is a slight decline of the coconut production due to the 'Mita blight'. We have commenced awareness programs to educate the public
on preventing 'Mita blight'. We have also identified an insect to counter the 'Mita blight'. Initiatives have been taken to provide instructions how to maintain coconut lands which have not been properly utilised. If any coconut land has not been developed or re-cultivated, there are provisions in the Coconut Development Authority Act to take them over.
Q:Is there a shortage in coconut oil production? Has the import of palm oil made an adverse impact on coconut oil production?
A: There is no shortage. However the prices of coconut oil and palm oil in the World Market have gone up rapidly. Local coconut oil production has shown a significant improvement in the recent times.
Q: How has the Ministry intervened to control the blights affecting coconut cultivation?
A: The Coconut Research Institute and the Coconut Cultivation Board in association with the district administration have taken steps to prevent the spread of "Weligama wilt" in the Southern province. In addition to the treatments introduced for "Mita blight", an insect will be used to counter it. We will be able to popularise this by the end of May this year. We will also take steps through the Coconut Development Officers to prevent the "coconut pest".
Cont. Cheaper coconuts soon - Minister Jagath Pushpakumara
Q:What is the progress achieved by the Janatha Estate Development sector which comes under your purview?
A: Under the Janatha Estate Development sector, the Kurunegala Plantation Company and the Chilaw Plantation Company have been vested in to my Ministry.
At present we have been able to bring these two companies into profit making status and pay the shares of profits to the Government. The former UNP Government had given these companies to the private sector.
Q:The Opposition during the election campaign of the Local Government polls highlights the issue of prices of goods as a major factor. Do you think this would adversely affect the Government?
A: The Opposition talks about the prices of vegetables and coconuts. Normally this is the time where the vegetable harvest comes to the market.
The rains and floods had affected and destroyed a large area of vegetable cultivation. This has directly resulted in a shortage of vegetables and increased their prices.
But a government or political power has no ability to control weather conditions or sudden disasters. Whatever government in power has to face these sudden disasters caused by the weather. These problems are not restricted only to our country.
In a situation where the Opposition has not been able even to sort out its internal crisis,they attempt to hang on even the prices of vegetables and coconuts to mislead the people.
But this is just only a childish attempt made by the Opposition.
Q: What is the progress of the UPFA campaign at the upcoming Local Government polls?
A: The next Provincial Council election will be held three years later and the General Election will be held nearly five and half years later. The next Presidential Election will be held after six years.
When so many opportunities are available to seek the assistance of the Local Government institutions and the President to develop their respective provinces and areas, the people are not so foolish to give power any other political party.
People are not absurd to isolate the Local Government institutions. The people elect a representative to a Local Government institute to do some work in their respective area. They are well aware of the developments taking place in their areas during the past few years.
The present Government has gained a lot of reputation as a Government which has fulfilled a massive development drive for the villages. The people are not ignorant to lose this unique opportunity to develop their areas with the assistance of this Government.
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