Life & Leisure

Turmeric missing from Sri Lankan kitchens as government turns protectionist

By Aanya Wipulasena

Colombo, Nov 26 (efe-epa).- Samantha Karunathilaka’s curry no longer carries the right hue or the home-cooked aroma since her stock of turmeric ran out, as this essential spice for Sri Lankan households has now practically disappeared from the markets due to the government’s protectionist policies.

“It gives the curry the color and smell. Turmeric doesn’t really affect the taste as other spices do, but without it food doesn’t look so good to eat,” Karunathilaka told EFE.

The authorities’ decision to ban the import of turmeric since December 2019 in order to boost local cultivation has led to a spike in smuggling and the sale of adulterated or low-quality product.

The 45-year old resident of the eastern city of Boralesgamuwa used up the last of her stock of turmeric – used not just in cooking but also to wash vegetables as an anti-bacterial agent – in June.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Karunathilaka finally managed to procure some of the spice but found it was adulterated as apparently rice flour was dyed yellow and sold as turmeric powder.

“Now there is no good turmeric in the market. We are encouraging people to grow turmeric in their gardens,” Deeptha Panagoda, agriculture research and production assistant at the Agriculture Ministry’s Govijana Sewa office in Malabe, told EFE.

Although the spice is essential ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine, the island nation produces only a fraction of the amount consumed each year. Until a year ago, it especially depended on imports from India.

The government has now been providing seeds and fertilizers for free through its offices such as the Govijana Sewa for people to grow their own turmeric plants.

But this provisional measure has done little good. One kilogram of turmeric, which cost around 425 rupees (some $2.2) at the beginning of this year, now costs around 6,000 rupees.

This situation has been exploited by smugglers, who have not hesitated to even fill ships with bales of this yellow powder. On Nov. 12, the Sri Lankan navy seized 800 kilograms (1,764 pounds) of contraband dry turmeric.

The scarcity is such that the spice is smuggled into the country as if it were gold or drugs, hidden in the most unsuspecting places, custom department spokesperson Sunil Jayarathne told EFE.

About 500 kilograms of turmeric have been seized at the border this year, while the punishment against traffickers is usually just a fine.

Several voices from the industry have described the situation as unsustainable, and the protectionist policies of the government have recently even invited a warning from the European Union.

“The president has been misled to believe that this was a sustainable decision. It is not; because there was no proper planning,” People’s Organization for Development Import and Export managing director and CEO Tyrell Fernando told EFE.

According to Fernando, the government should have given the farmers and households a time span of two years to start growing turmeric.

“Without doing that they completely stopped imports. What happened then was that the people started using the domestic yield to regrow. (So now) we don’t have enough turmeric reaching the markets,” Fernando said.

The situation has no quick solution, and in all probability the prices would remain high bringing much discomfort to Sri Lankan households, according to Fernando.

“It was cheaper to import turmeric from India because the labor cost is comparatively low there,” Fernando added.

However, the government has been unwilling to abandon its ambitious plan to build strong agriculture and industry – the reason it gave to justify the import ban a year ago.

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